Europe Is Making U.K. Conservatives Stupid Again

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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It was the philosopher John Stuart Mill who first called the U.K.'s Tories the "stupid" party, and they are currently living up to the insult.

Actually, Mill said in a parliamentary debate: "I never meant to say that the Conservatives are generally stupid. I meant to say that stupid people are generally Conservative." Still, the name stuck.

The Conservative Party chose David Cameron as its leader in the hope of killing off this image -- or worse, the image of the "nasty party," which Home Secretary Theresa May warned it was gaining in 2002. It worked, at least until this year.

While visiting Washington this week, Cameron's anti-European Union legislators at home pushed him into offering them another sop to keep them quiet about Europe -- a bill that would commit to holding a referendum after the next election, on whether to pull out of the EU.

Never mind that no legislation can bind the next parliament and that Cameron already made a political commitment to a referendum. Never mind that the Conservatives are in a coalition government, the other part of which -- the Liberal Democrats -- is highly unlikely to allow anti-EU legislation to pass. And never mind that Britons, when surveyed, don't place the EU in their top 10 list of voting issues. A section of Tories is obsessed with Europe and can't let it go.

Cameron opened the door to this never-ending void for political time and energy when he gave a speech on Europe earlier this year. He said he would renegotiate the U.K.'s EU membership terms, repatriating powers that were ceded to the institutions in Brussels, and then hold a referendum by the middle of the next government's term on whether to remain in the union.

The speech aimed to defuse the Europe issue within his party until the next elections, and to halt the rise of the anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party. Tory euro-skeptics, rather than lose interest until the referendum, ramped up their efforts to drive Europe to the top of the political agenda. UKIP continued to syphon away support from the Conservative base. Cameron has barely known a quiet moment since.

Supporters of a U.K. exit from the EU point to the bloc's democratic failures, which are real. They also insist that it is undemocratic not to hold a referendum on whether to remain in the EU, a claim that is self-serving. The U.K. has held only two nationwide referendums in its history (one of them on remaining in the then European Economic Community in 1975), but it does hold regular national elections. The Conservatives campaigned hard on the Europe issue during the early 2000s, and lost, partly because voters thought they had a weird obsession.

Has this changed? A survey by the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project this week showed that the popularity of the EU in its annus horribilis fell in the U.K. by one of the smallest margins of any country surveyed last year, with 43 percent of Britons saying they had a favourable view of it, down from 45 percent in 2012. That means the EU is now more popular in the U.K. than in France, where support fell to 41 percent from 60 percent.

The survey clearly doesn't support EU complacency. The bloc needs to change and the U.K., as a big country with strong democratic traditions, should lead the way. Pew calls the EU ``the new sick man of Europe.'' But the survey also doesn't suggest that U.K. voters are suddenly obsessed with leaving the EU, in the same way as a portion of the Conservative Party and its members.

Cameron didn't campaign on leaving Europe in 2010 -- the EU featured on Page 113 of the party's election manifesto. There will be another election by 2015, when the Tories can, if they wish, campaign hard for a mandate to leave the EU, or on holding a referendum on the question. In the meantime, Cameron should take on his party's euro-skeptics, instead of hoping to appease them. He should remind them that they already have a referendum pledge, and that the way to make it happen is for the Conservatives to win the next election.

The U.K. may or may not find that it makes sense to leave the EU in the next few years, as the bloc adjusts to save the euro. My guess, though, is that if the Tories spend the next year focused on leaving the EU, rather than fixing the economy, they will again just look weird and lose the election. In that case, there may be no EU referendum at all, which doesn't sound like a smart strategy for Conservatives who want one.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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