Amol Rajan: Forget that veto, Europe is still Cameron's nightmare

 

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By using Britain's veto in the EU shortly before the Christmas break, David Cameron showed courage and great statesmanship in defending the national interest. His poll ratings justifiably soared, his strained relationship with Tory backbenchers was permanently improved, and his emotional contract with the British people, unsettled since the May 2010 election, was fulfilled to the mutual benefit of both.

A version of the above paragraph cursed almost every round-up of the Westminster scene, looking back on 2011 and forward to 2012, in our media over the past few weeks – especially the Europhobic portion, which is to say, the majority. That this assessment is wilfully myopic, and blind to the lessons of the past, has been no impediment to its ubiquity. In fact, history shows that Europe is the most toxic of all issues for the Tories. There is no reason to suppose this time will be different.

There are three main ways in which Europe will damage the Tories. First, by putting an unbearable strain on the Coalition. Several reliable Tory propagandists, and a few unreliable ones, suggested in December that Cameron should capitalise on his poll numbers and call an election. More sober and shrewd observers, like Paul Goodman of conservativehome.com, point out that Cameron has no choice but to stick with the Coalition.

The public wouldn't forgive a snap election, and women and voters in the North – two groups the Tories need for a majority – have yet to be won over. Europe is the issue on which the gulf between Tories and Liberal Democrats is biggest and most irreconcilable. It is going to grow as an issue, not shrink. That will make coalition government much harder, from which only Labour will benefit.

The second way in which Europe does damage to the Tories is by exposing Cameron and Steve Hilton's rebranding and detoxification exercise as hollow. They wanted to govern as social reformers. But Europe and the economy give the Tory grip on power a familiar feel.

And third, as this column has noted before, Ukip is emerging as a considerable threat to the solidity of the centre-right vote. Regularly polling 7 or 8 per cent, this party of pinstriped patriots will cost Tories precious votes in marginal seats with their clear, uncompromisingly conservative positions on Europe, crime and immigration.

For these reasons, Europe is about to turn from a dream to a nightmare for the Prime Minister. And the man who will loom larger in his and national consciousness, and indeed the man to watch in 2012, is Ukip's increasingly impressive leader, Nigel Farage.

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