Labour is the only friend this pro-EU prime minister still has

The cuts are getting closer to home. Last weekend, an 86-year-old near neighbour died in a house fire when he might have been rescued had the fire brigade not been suffering from a programme of cutbacks.

One can never be sure in such cases, but the London secretary of the Fire Brigades Union, Paul Embery, pointed out the fire engines were significantly later on the scene than they should have been. Thanks to the cuts to local authority budgets which are an integral feature of George Osborne’s austerity policy, and reductions in the fire service being energetically pursued by the mayor of London, the borough of Islington has reportedly lost 60% of its fire cover in the past three years. The Islington Tribune – a newspaper David Cameron says he regularly subscribes to – reports that this leaves “just two engines for a borough with a population of more than 200,000”.

This is one example of the slashing of public services being pursued wholesale by a very insensitive government. Yet the Labour party, which, in my view rightly, questions the entire basis of the austerity programme, is consumed by its own internal problems and, alas, makes precious little public impact in opposing this callous policy – a policy which is accompanied by a determined assault on the opposition’s ability to finance itself, and on the system by which young people can come on to the electoral register.

I am, however, reminded of that great passage in The Merchant of Venice, where Shylock, having been subjected to continual abuse by Signor Antonio, tells him: “Well, then, it now appears you need my help…”

Cameron and Osborne certainly need help. They are in this together – the campaign for the UK to remain within the European Union – and the irony is that those of us who are virulently opposed to their austerity policies are on their side in wanting a Remain vote on 23 June.

Meanwhile, as my Guardian colleague Polly Toynbee pointed out last week, it must be an interesting experience for Cameron and co to feel the full weight of the Brexit brigade attacking them daily in newspapers whose role, they are accustomed to believe, is to humiliate Labour.

Estimates vary, but it seems that, in addition to the Murdoch, Rothermere and Barclay Brothers press, the prime minister and chancellor find that half or more of their backbench MPs are in the Brexit camp. If their careers are not to end in ignominy on 23 June, the first lord of the Treasury and his chancellor need the support of the Labour party. In the circumstances, one should have thought that they might be a little more circumspect in their approach to the opposition.

I really do wonder about the world that the prominent Tory Brexit brigade thinks it inhabits. Have they not a sufficient grasp of the history of recent decades to realise that even Michael Foot, who as leader of the opposition in 1983 wanted to leave the European Community, in his latter days became a passionate pro-European?

Do they not notice that when British politicians of either major party serve as commissioners in Brussels, they start to appreciate the advantages of our being part of a wider group for everything from trade negotiations to defence and security, crime prevention, environmental policy and so on?

This has applied in recent years to the experience of Lords Patten and Lord Brittan on the Tory side, and Lords Kinnock and Mandelson on the Labour side. And it was my old acquaintance, the Conservative Lord Cockfield, who did the donkey work on the provisions for the single market in the Single European Act of 1986, which Margaret Thatcher signed, and has won praise ever since.

I sincerely hope that the bookmakers are right, and that the odds recently quoted of 1-3 for our staying in the union are a better guide to the eventual outcome than the opinion polls, which point to a much closer result – indeed, possibly to Brexit, or secession.

But although Cameron can rely on Scotland and Wales, paradoxically he cannot depend on the loyalty of Tory England, many of whose members talk of “sovereignty” without seeming to notice that many of our key commercial operations and public utilities are more appropriately thought of, given the structure of their ownership, as “European” anyway.

Moreover, the idea that those of us who support continued membership of the club we strove for decades to enter were “wrong about the euro” is erroneous. Some were, but many of us were not. Indeed, this column always tried to make the distinction between membership of the EU and membership of the eurozone, which I always thought was a step too far.

Also, it is a complete fantasy to think that, after having put up with recent, excruciatingly embarrassing, demands from this country, our EU neighbours would happily endorse yet another renegotiation after a Brexit vote.

At a time when they are struggling to cope with the biggest crisis since the foundation of the EU – namely the acute refugee problem – they need our help and wholehearted cooperation. Having struggled for decades to come to terms with the loss of empire, we might finally find a role.

Powered by article was written by William Keegan, for The Observer on Sunday 6th March 2016 08.59 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010