Editorial: Lord Lawson's remarks herald the return of the Tories' obsession with Europe

The former Chancellor has branded any repatriation of powers "inconsequential"

Share

Were it another Conservative grandee, even another former Chancellor, who was so publicly setting out his intention to vote for Britain to leave the EU, then the declaration might be a rather less incendiary one.

Lord Lawson, however, is both a genuine political heavyweight and one whose history on Europe – voting “in” in 1975 and backing the Exchange Rate Mechanism a decade later – is a far cry from the dyed-in-the-wool scepticism of the usual suspects. Finally, there is his status within his party to consider: as the budgetary plumber of high Thatcherism, Lord Lawson has huge influence, particularly over the current crop of dissatisfied coalitionists.

What, though, of the substance of his claims? In fact, for all the recourse to Keynes’ overworked (if apocryphal) “when the facts change, I change my mind”, the former Chancellor’s arguments are that familiar mix of anachronism and wishful thinking which so often characterises the arguments of those who would have Britain pull up the political drawbridge.

That is not to say that Europe does not need reform. From the yawning fiscal flaws exposed by the euro crisis, to the woeful inefficiencies of many EU institutions, to the widening disconnect between votes and power, the European project is far from completed. As Lord Lawson rightly points out, bank regulation is an especially vexed question for Britain.

But to conclude that “the case for exit is clear” is simplistic to the point of absurdity; and the claim that the “modest” benefits of the single market could easily be replaced is the  finger-in-the-air economics of the soap-box rabble-rouser, not a reasoned basis from which to reshape our political and economic future.

It is easy to paint a Brussels-free Britain as a picture of Anglo-Saxon enterprise, as a global super-trader no longer bound by red tape and the whims of bureaucrats. But Europe accounts for perhaps three million British jobs, nearly 60 per cent of exports and more than half of imports. The notion that withdrawal would make little difference flies in the face of logic.

Meanwhile, much of the “red tape” would remain; and the myriad unquantifiable benefits – from trade deals to geopolitical heft to shared security – would be lost. A Britain outside the EU would not be liberated; it would be reduced. If the substance of Lord Lawson’s remarks is questionable, the politics are potentially catastrophic – for the Tories in particular. David Cameron was already in a bind over Europe. To head off sceptic rumblings from his back benches, he promised not only to renegotiate Britain’s position, but to hold an in/out referendum after the next election. Although the scheme bought him barely a moment’s respite from his mutinous right wing, it at least pushed the decision to  beyond 2015.

Now, though, Lord Lawson has openly  pooh-poohed the strategy, branding any changes in the rules that Mr Cameron might secure as “inconsequential”. Even worse, the devastating dismissal came just days after the local elections. Never mind that Ukip’s mini-boom is more about immigration and the protest vote than the EU; for Eurosceptics with an axe to grind, such distinctions matter little.

There are plenty of them. Perhaps a third of Tory MPs want out of Europe, another third are undecided. The Prime Minister himself hopes to have us stay, albeit on tweaked terms. But his room to manoeuvre is shrinking. In Europe, he now talks of “reform” rather than “renegotiation”, but EU policymakers grow warier nonetheless and are less inclined to compromise.

Mr Cameron is attempting to ride two horses. Always a difficult trick to pull off, Lord Lawson has made it inestimably harder. The fractious Tories are the losers. Worse, so is Britain.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

£40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

£30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Ice skating in George Square, Glasgow  

How many Christmas cards have you sent this year?

Simon Kelner
 

Al-Sweady Inquiry: An exercise in greed that blights the lives of brave soldiers

Richard Kemp
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
10 best high-end laptops

10 best high-end laptops

From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

Homeless Veterans campaign

Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

Meet Racton Man

Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

Garden Bridge

St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

Joint Enterprise

The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

Freud and Eros

Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum