There is a certain delicious irony that in the week the EU referendum bill passed into UK law and David Cameron confirmed he intends to hold that vote next year, Ukip, the political phenomenon that drove him to call the referendum in the first place, is gently imploding.
Its two main leaders – Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage – are engaged in an open war, the party’s head office cannot afford a Christmas party and morale has fallen after the party failed to make a breakthrough in a byelection in Oldham West seemingly tailor-made for its message. Perhaps familiarity has meant Farage has lost his star quality.
Yet back in January 2013 when Cameron made his momentous speech at Bloomberg announcing the referendum, the domestic and European landscape looked so different.
Ukip had achieved a breakthrough in the 2013 European elections, topping the poll with 27% of the vote, the Conservatives were locked in a civil war about gay marriage and there were real fears that Ukip would deprive Cameron of general election victory.
One poll by ComRes, published in the Independent in December 2013, saw Ukip well over 10 points and, on this showing, the pollsters predicted an overall Labour majority of 110 seats with the Tories down 99 seats and the Liberal Democrats cut to 36. The very foundations of the Conservative party were trembling.
On mainland Europe, the Greek financial crisis was at its height with austerity budgets, riots and EU crisis summits following one after the other in bewildering succession.
Tories argue the current calm shows the wisdom of Cameron’s decision to risk the referendum. If he had failed to ask the self-consciously “difficult questions” in the Bloomberg speech, Britain might have drifted toward the EU exit, and observing the rise of the far right in Europe, Farage-ism could have turned into an unstoppable force.
For as Cameron repeatedly argued in this week’s European summit, the forces to which Ukip gave political expression have not declined at the same rate as Ukip itself. Migration, pace of change, identity and security remain significant issues.
The question arises whether Cameron’s package – with all its technocratic language of baskets, treaty change and yellow cards – will lead anyone to think that he has negotiated the fundamental change he promised. Polling, our old unreliable friend, suggests not.
The proposed welfare reforms look timid alongside the massive global forces driving migration. But that does not mean a majority of voters will decide to leave. Faced by the old choice between risk and security, voters choose security.
At minimum, voters may be grateful that their political masters have given them a choice. The deeper question is whether Cameron’s intervention has prompted the EU to answer its questions about economic governance. In his Bloomberg speech, he said: “The EU must be able to act with the speed and flexibility of a network, not the cumbersome rigidity of a bloc.”
“Now – while the EU is in flux, and when we don’t know what the future holds and what sort of EU will emerge from this crisis – is not the right time to make such a momentous decision about the future of our country.”
Yet many of those issues have been postponed until after the French and German elections in 2017. Some of those most basic questions about the future structure of the EU remain to be answered.
This article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor, for theguardian.com on Friday 18th December 2015 20.13 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010