After David Cameron's electoral success, the real fight begins
David Cameron may be basking in his electoral success, but now he has to face the issue of Europe, writes Dan O'Brien
Published 10/05/2015 | 02:30
No British government has won anything approaching half of the popular vote in more than half a century. The best Tony Blair managed was 43pc, and that was only when the Tories had become toxic. Margaret Thatcher in her prime never bettered Blair, even when Labour was unelectable.
But because of Britain's profoundly-disproportionate electoral system, it has been possible to win a comfortable Westminster majority with the support of as few as one-in-three voters. That is close to what happened in Britain on Thursday. The Conservatives got more than half the seats with less than 37pc of the vote.
If there is any consolation from an Irish perspective, it is that a more normal, European-style voting system in Britain would have produced a Conservative-UKIP coalition. That would have been worse for us, because it would have increased the chances of barriers sprouting up between this country and our most important neighbour. That, in turn, is because Britain could be out of the EU in the coming years if the referendum on the matter, which will be held at some point over the next 30 months, is won by withdrawalists.
A British vote to leave the EU would be, by a distance, the most serious negative development for Ireland's positioning in the world in decades. As a whole series of recent studies have shown, there would be multiple negative implications for Irish prosperity, north-south relations on this island, relations with Britain and the way the EU functions in the event of "Brexit".
The probability of that happening has increased significantly since Thursday. In contrast to Ed Miliband, David Cameron long ago promised a referendum if he won the general election. If Labour had won, the threat of Brexit would have dropped off the agenda for the medium term at least. With Cameron winning a majority he is committed to holding a referendum by the end of 2017 at the latest.
So now that a vote on membership is certain to be held, which way will it go?
Recent trends in opinion poll are the most encouraging development in recent times from an Irish perspective, and for everyone else - in Britain and elsewhere - who believes that an EU without the UK would be bad for Europe. They have shown the proportion of voters saying they are in favour of staying in Europe is rising strongly, after a protracted decline. The loss of support up to 2012 reflected the deepening crisis of the euro. The inflection point came when the crisis was calmed in mid-2012.
The latest YouGov tracker poll on voting intentions in a referendum, taken at the end of April, shows support for staying in at 47pc, while only one third want to leave. If the euro area can recover, or at least not re-erupt into crisis, fewer Britons are likely to want to cut loose from an entity that, for a time, came to be seen at times as a millstone.
Thursday's election will also have major implications for the way the campaign is fought. The failure of Ukip to translate its 13pc of the national vote into more than a single Westminster seat is likely to reduce the party's say in the referendum. Potentially more damaging is the departure as leader of the man who has defined his party more than any other political leader in recent memory. Withdrawalists will lose their most potent advocate if Nigel Farage does not lead the Ukip campaign.
But the election outcome is far from unambiguously good for the pro-EU side. The Lib Dems are the only strongly pro-European party in England and their near wipe-out will do a lot to lessen their impact in the campaign. The position and gut instinct on Europe of Mr Miliband's successor will also be important.
But most important, by far, is what happens in the governing Conservatives. While Cameron, who supports Britain's continued EU membership, is basking in unpredicted electoral success, his majority is half that of John Major's after the 1992 election. The slenderness of Major's majority allowed the party's Eurosceptic element to harry him relentlessly all the way to the 1997 election.
Given how the Tories have become much more Eurosceptic since, and that around 100 MPs are now of that ilk (twice the number Major faced), there is little reason to believe that Cameron will have an easy time of it on Europe. This is likely to manifest most acutely in the negotiations that the re-elected prime minister has demanded with the rest of the EU on changing the bloc's rules to better suit Britain.
Those talks will be tough for a number of reasons. First, there remain many questions over the concessions Cameron will look for. A massive recent study by British diplomats found that the things done at European level broadly suited Britain, so it is not fully clear which powers he will seek to have repatriated.
Second, some countries will not want to be excessively generous towards British demands for change and others will want to avoid change that involves the cumbersome process of redrafting the treaties underpinning the European constitutional order (Ireland will be among the most sensitive on this issue if the result is a referendum here).
Third, no matter what deal Cameron manages to negotiate, he knows it will not satisfy many within his party. That means that the Tories will not fight the referendum campaign as a united force. If he imposes the whip it may lead to a formal split in the party and if he doesn't he will look weak as he campaigns against his own backbenchers.
Finally, there is the media. Much of the British press has been vehemently anti-EU for many years. But full-scale withdrawal would be a step of real historical significance, and negative for Britain economically and in terms of its clout in the world. People like Rupert Murdoch, who hate the EU, are hard-headed enough to know this. If the Eurosceptic media do not back Brexit, the chances of a vote to stay in will rise considerably.
While a lot will depend on the concessions Cameron can win, how these are presented and the balance of forces in the campaign, referendums rarely end up focusing only on the question being asked. Other issues are invariably dragged in. In the Brexit vote, immigration is the issue most likely to muddy the waters, and the one that has the potential to boost the withdrawalist camp more than any other. As illustrated in the accompanying chart of the three issues that concern British voters most, immigration has frequently been top of the list in recent years. And these Ipsos-Mori surveys probably understate the salience of the issue. Just as the polls did not capture the extent of Conservative support in the run-up to last Thursday's vote, they probably do not capture the full extent of hostility to immigration owing to many people's unwillingness to admit to survey takers their discomfort at foreigners living in their midst.
Because free movement of people within the EU is seen so negatively in Britain, withdrawalists will hammer home the perfectly factual message that border controls simply cannot exist as long as the country is a member of the EU. If immigration remains a hot topic - and that is by no means certain as the salience of the issue fluctuates quite a lot - then the chances of a vote to pull out will rise.
For Ireland, the Brexit saga could turn out very nicely. During the extended period of uncertainty, some businesses in Britain, and those thinking of making investments there, will come to see the uncertainty around EU membership as too great. They could bring their business to Ireland instead. But when the referendum does take place, a thumping majority back membership. Euroscepticism then withers and the membership question is settled for a generation.
This is the best of all possible worlds. But don't bank on such a happy outcome.