Our quixotic prime minister may need Labour to save him in Europe

PM attends European Council

In his Antimémoires, the French writer and politician André Malraux recalls a conversation with President de Gaulle after the second world war in which De Gaulle said he planned to nationalise the banks and public utilities.

But he went on to emphasise that he was going to do this “not for the sake of the left but for the sake of France”.

At this crucial time for Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe, the question of for whose sake vital decisions are being made is an important one.

It is glaringly obvious that David Cameron’s decision to promise a referendum was made more for the sake of his own position and that of the Conservative party than for the country, let alone for Europe. And the British press last week was rife with speculation about whether Boris Johnson would also put his own future prospects above those of our relationship with the rest of Europe.

But, as my colleague Andrew Rawnsley has pointed out, with so many Tories in the Brexit camp, and every vote counting – the outcome of referendums is not decided in marginal constituencies – much depends on the Labour vote.

Lord Kinnock has been giving a powerful lead in this regard, and it is worth recalling that the Labour leader who preceded Neil Kinnock in the early 1980s, namely Michael Foot, became a strong pro-European in his latter days – manifesting true repentance for the infamous Labour manifesto of 1983.

That manifesto included, among other vote-losers at the time, a commitment to withdraw from the European Community. It has become a cliche that Labour’s Gerald Kaufman described the manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history”. Less well known is Foot’s rueful private remark: “But he got elected on it.”

The paradox here is that a concerted Labour vote for remaining in the EU, albeit with a “special relationship”, is likely, if the outcome is a Yes vote, to strengthen the prime minister’s position. But no one in their right mind, I sincerely hope, would vote for Brexit simply to unseat Cameron.

Now, long before reality television conquered the world, there used to be a radio serial called Mrs Dale’s Diary. Mrs Dale was a doctor’s wife: even in those days the health service had its problems of “overload”, and from time to time Mrs Dale would observe the pressures on her husband and sigh: “I am very worried about Jim.”

This reminiscence came to mind recently when I read that Cameron’s mother, and at least one aunt, were expressing public concern about the impact of the chancellor’s doctrinally driven austerity programme. I don’t know whether members of the Cameron family read the Times law reports, but if they do they could have come across an interesting item on Monday 8 February.

The report was written in that complex prose that reminds me why I never wanted to become a lawyer. But even in its time of trial the British press still employs great subeditors, and the headline said it all. The supreme court had decreed “Non-worker EU nationals not entitled to UK welfare”.

This made me think that perhaps Cameron has to some extent been engaged in erecting a “man of straw”, and that the benefit rules are not quite so favourable to “immigrants” as readers of the Daily Mail are told. As my old friend and colleague Alan Watkins used to say, “these are deep waters”, and Cameron has found himself swimming in them.

I have to say that the question “who is the real David Cameron?” intrigues me – much more so than “who is the real George Osborne?”

What you see in the real George Osborne is what you get. The chancellor, having misled the nation on the putative need for austerity, is obsessed with a programme of cuts that originally affected the poor and voiceless but is now even upsetting well-heeled people in the home counties, including the prime minister’s own family.

Osborne’s ambition is naked: he wants to succeed Cameron in the top job, and is set on his programme of public spending cuts designed to shrink the size of the state and “make room” for tax cuts.

In his public appearances Osborne often resembles a pantomime villain, whereas Cameron does his best to come across as a decent chap who cares about society and is in the best tradition of such one-nation Tories as Harold Macmillan and Ian Gilmour.

However, in practice Cameron seems to be a split personality. In between his quixotic assaults on “Brussels” and its ilk, he has been making a series of speeches, and putting his name to a series of articles, which purport to show that he wishes his domestic legacy to be one of a decent, harmonious Britain.

Unfortunately the entire thrust of his chancellor’s policies points the other way, aggravating the plight of those who are already finding it difficult to make ends meet.

Now, I am not saying that the plight is caused solely by Osborne’s doctrinal pursuit of public spending cuts for the sake of tax cuts. The causes of slow growth, low wages and the housing crisis are manifold, but the effect of economic and social policy since 2010 has been to aggravate, not alleviate them. Against this background, the prime minister’s domestic ambitions for his legacy sound hollow.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by William Keegan, for The Observer on Sunday 21st February 2016 07.00 Europe/London

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