In what has been hailed as the first salvo of the 2015 General Election campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron has pledged to maintain the “Triple Lock” state pension guarantee. This could be regarded as a smart political move — after all, proportionately more pensioners vote than any other group. Moreover by getting his announcement in first, he leaves Labour and Lib-Dems playing catch-up.
On the other hand, how surprised are we? Did anyone really expect that the Tories would go into the 2015 election without such a pledge? Or that Labour would either? Cameron is merely confirming expectations, rather than offering a new proposition. And he notably failed to confirm retention of other elderly benefits like the fuel allowance, bus passes or TV licences.
I suspect that he is setting rather more store by another issue: his attempted resolution of the EU question, which has caused the party so much angst over the years — and which is driving many former Tory supporters (and others) to UKIP. He’s promised a Referendum, after his proposed renegotiation, and he’s sought to enshrine this in law with his Referendum Bill. But here, it’s all falling apart. Never mind a Triple Lock. This looks more like a Triple Failure.
First, his Lib-Dem coalition partners wanted none of it (despite themselves having previously demanded, and promised, and In/Out Referendum). So Cameron couldn’t have a government bill. Instead, he’s had to make do with James Wharton’s Private Member’s Bill — much more difficult to pass into law.
Now we hear that the Bill is unlikely to get through the Lords in time to make it onto the Statute Book. There is a very good chance that Cameron will have to come back and say “I’m sorry. I promised you a Referendum Bill, but I’ve been unable to deliver it” — though I doubt he’ll use those exact words.
The next glaring hole in his plan is that even if he were to get his Referendum Bill, it would only take a two-line Bill in 2015/16 to repeal it, and one could imagine in 2015 a Lib-Lab coalition where repeal of the referendum bill was a Lib-Dem pre-condition.
Finally, of course, the Brussels apparatchiks including José Manuel Barroso have rubbished the whole idea of renegotiation, and for once I think they’re right. They can’t possibly allow major concessions to one member state without opening a Pandora’s box. And as Ernest Bevin charmingly put it, “If you open that Pandora’s box, you never know what Trojan horses will jump out”. Other countries will demand concessions, and the whole 50-year structure will disintegrate. You and I might applaud that idea, but clearly the EU institutions can’t countenance it.
Some Tories pin their faith on comments by Angela Merkel suggesting that she might support the British attempt. But there’s little chance of that. She might want to soft-pedal some of the more detailed and intrusive EU legislation, but in terms of fiscal integration and central control of national budgets, she wants more Europe, not less.
(I guess that’s a quadruple failure, not a triple one. Sorry about that!)
Where does that leave Tory activists who (as I once did) supported the party not least because it seemed to offer the best hope of getting Britain out of the EU? If, as looks increasingly likely, UKIP wins the May 22nd €uro-elections, those activists may conclude that the only party serious about solving the European question is UKIP. And they’d be right. I suspect that between May 2014 and June 2015, a great number of those activists, and indeed eurosceptics from other parties, who may have been waiting to be convinced about UKIP’s prospects, will decide that the time has come to make their move.