Leading article: Dangerous referendum talk costs UK credibility

Share
Related Topics

Trouble in the European Union invariably spells trouble for the British government, whatever its political complexion. And the crisis over the euro provides a graphic example. By highlighting an abiding flaw in the thinking behind the single currency – the impossibility of imposing financial discipline across so many disparate national economies – the euro crisis has allowed Britain's dedicated band of Eurosceptics to say "I told you so". What is more, the obvious solution – closer fiscal union – could have knock-on effects that threaten the pre-eminence of the City of London, handing the Eurosceptic tendency a campaigning opportunity it has not hesitated to seize.

Liam Fox's speech to the Taxpayers' Alliance yesterday was just the latest salvo from a wing of the Conservative Party that is trying to take out its frustrations with the constraints of coalition by making common cause with a resurgent Ukip. The clamour is now mounting for a referendum – though precisely on what is unclear: the nature of the relationship with the EU or whether to leave? So far, it has to be said, so predictable – and so dispiriting.

Still more dispiriting, however, is the way that the Prime Minister has so unwisely risen to the referendum bait. Until recently, he and the Chancellor had managed, more or less credibly, to argue that it was right for the UK to be outside the euro, but in British interests for the euro to succeed. This was not the simplest message to get across, but nor was it the hardest: the difficulties of the euro inevitably harm the UK economy, and the euro's failure would make the damage infinitely worse. Mr Cameron should have kept to this message and ignored the calls for a referendum; he could always blame the Liberal Democrats if he needed an alibi.

Appearing to treat with those who want a referendum, as Mr Cameron did in The Sunday Telegraph, does not silence their demand, it rather encourages them to repeat it more loudly, then take umbrage when it turns out that nothing has changed. And this is what happened. What Eurosceptics took from Mr Cameron's article was that he was open to holding a referendum on Europe, even though that statement, like many others, was gnomic in the extreme. What he actually said was that he was "not against referendums on Europe", but not that he was explicitly in favour.

The Prime Minister was clearer about his opposition to "the earliest possible in/out referendum", but he stopped short of excluding such a prospect altogether. The cumulative effect was to raise referendum hopes among those opposed to membership of the EU only a couple of days after he had appeared to dash them in Brussels. To the impression of weakness in the face of a Eurosceptic advance was thus added political incoherence. Nor did Mr Cameron do much to clear things up in his Commons appearance yesterday.

The Prime Minister should know how rash concessions to his party's Eurosceptics can come back to haunt him. In honouring his pledge to take Conservative MEPs out of that parliament's centre-right bloc, he shocked his natural allies in Europe and undermined British influence. And by breathing hot and cold on a referendum, he will only raise further doubts in Europe about his, and Britain's, commitment. A Prime Minister with a respectable majority has the luxury of remaining aloof from factionalism in his party, and that applies still more if he is in coalition. The euro crisis is serious enough in itself, without Mr Cameron allowing himself to be bounced into making it a British political drama, too.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Operations Coordinator - Pallet Network

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Opportunity to join established...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: On behalf of a successful academy i...

Investigo: Finance Business Partner

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Investigo: My client, a global leader in providing ...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial Property Solicitor - West London

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: WEST LONDON - An excellent new opportunity wit...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A solar energy farm in France  

Nature Studies: For all the attractions of solar power, it shouldn’t blight the countryside

Michael McCarthy
Supporters of New Democracy wave Greek flags during Antonis Samaras pre-election speech.  

Greece elections: Where does power lie? This is the question that ties the UK to Athens

Steve Richards
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project