November, the month associated with Halloween and spooky forces, appears to be presenting British Prime Minister David Cameron with a nightmare that could end up resulting in his head rolling as leader of the Conservative Party.
A «month of misery» is how the staunchly pro-Conservative Daily Telegraph (known cheekily as «The Torygraph») forecast the coming weeks for the hapless Cameron.
This week the British premier warned yet again that Britain could quit membership of the European Union, ostensibly over the EU’s lax controls on immigration. A populist British theme is that the United Kingdom is being inundated with foreign nationals who are consuming public spending funds and pinching jobs from Britons. By appearing to get tough on immigration, Cameron is betting that that will play well with voters. But by engaging in demagogic rhetoric, the Tory leader may end up fanning even more support for the more extreme rightwing UK Independence Party at the expense of his own party and his leadership.
Earlier this month saw a minister resigning from Cameron’s coalition government with junior partner the Liberal Democrats. Such is the bad blood between the ruling partners that the resigning minister Norman Baker didn’t even give notice of stepping down to his boss, the Home Secretary Theresa May. He just walked off the job telling media how impossible it was to work with Tory colleagues. «Like walking through mud», was how he described it. Part of that bad blood stems from the Liberals being more europhile than their Conservative partners.
With only months to go before the British General Election, Cameron’s coalition government is coming apart at the seams.
At the root of Cameron’s fears is the meteoric rise of the far-right UK Independence Party. Fervently anti-immigration and anti-European Union, the UKIP is stealing voters away from the centre-right Conservatives.
Not only voters, but Members of Parliament as well. Last month, a defecting MP from Cameron’s party turned round and won a by-election giving the UKIP its first lawmaker in Westminster.
Next week, on November 20, another by-election has been triggered after a second Conservative MP announced that he was also quitting the party to join the upstart UKIP. The aptly named former Tory MP, now UKIP candidate, Mark Reckless is set to win the forthcoming local election by a safe margin. He is leading polls by 15 points ahead of the newly drafted-in Conservative candidate.
As a Daily Mail headline put it: ‘UKIP on course to crush Conservatives’.
If Cameron sees another scalp taken by the rival UKIP that will put his party leadership and occupancy of 10 Downing Street under acute threat. Conservative-leaning news media are reporting on disgruntled backbenchers from within in his own party as getting ready to ditch Cameron before the end of the year. The reasoning is that «the window» will give the party a fighting chance to regroup under a new leader for the national elections scheduled to take place in May 2015.
The worrying thing for Cameron’s party is that the defections are happening in what would be normally considered «safe parliamentary seats». Last month saw the constituency of Clacton going to UKIP; this month it is likely Rochester and Strood will be taken. Both are in the Tory heartland of southeast England. After all, it was key support in England’s southeast that paved the way for Margaret Thatcher to become a three-time Prime Minister back in the 1980s and gave rise to the phenomenon of «Essex Man» – dyed-in-the-wool true blue Tories.
A recent Sunday newspaper poll found that across England up to one-third of voters say they will vote for the UKIP, led by the maverick «man of the people» Nigel Farage. That level of support is on par with Cameron’s Conservative Party.
The political nightmare facing David Cameron is in many ways of his owning making. He resembles a driver of a vehicle who is fixated at looking in the rear-view mirror. It’s not a sound way to drive forward. Cameron’s fixation with his rearguard is due to the rise of Farage’s UKIP. In only a matter of a few years, since the last General Election in May 2010, the rival party has accelerated in electoral support to now pose a threat of overtaking the once-dominant Tories.
The trouble is that Cameron has helped accelerate the support for the UKIP by trying to pre-empt its growing popularity by indulging in demagoguery.
Two issues in particular are the row over the UK’s mandatory contribution to the European Union budget, and over perceived increasing immigration. Both issues have been in large part stoked by Cameron as a way of «flexing his muscles» to would-be voters, but in doing so he runs the risk of only adding more grist to the UKIP mill.
At the end of last month at the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels, David Cameron took many observers by surprise when he suddenly announced that Britain would not be paying extra budgetary contributions to the 28-member bloc, estimated at £1.7 billion (€2.1 billion). The revised upward figure for Britain’s budgetary contribution came about because EU bureaucrats recently re-calculated that London had been underpaying its stipend since 1995.
The recalibration of Britain’s contribution to the overall EU budget is merely a clerical matter. Even Britain’s Financial Times reported the matter as being a mundane accounting issue, which British Treasury officials had phlegmatically agreed to in previous discussions with their Brussels counterparts. There is nothing untoward about the increased payments; it may be deemed as unfortunate timing for the British economy, but the revised figure is a case of «rules are rules» with several other EU countries also having to cough up more finances to Brussels.
It was Cameron who decided to politicise the finances at the EU summit by declaring with a truculent manner that Britain would not be «opening its check book» on demand. Why Cameron decided to adopt this testy position was doubtless motivated by a need to pre-empt the UKIP from latching on to the issue and painting Downing Street as being «soft on Brussels».
But this is dangerous driving by Cameron. For a start, he has put himself in an inarguable position. Britain’s increased financial contributions to EU budget might be bad timing, but the figure is calculated on the same basis as for every other member. Quite rightly, other EU leaders have told Cameron to shut up and pay up.
Now it turns out, according to the Daily Telegraph, that Britain has quietly worked out a deal with Brussels to pay off its £1.7 billion budget arrears in instalments, and thereby avoid incurring additional punitive interest payments of £70 million a month. No matter that anticipated UKIP mocking will be unfairly exaggerated on the issue, it is nevertheless easy to see how Cameron will be made to look like he capitulated to the Brussels bureaucracy.
So, having whipped up a political storm on EU finances to forestall UKIP, Cameron is set to reap a whirlwind of his own making.
The other hot potato for Cameron is immigration. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has warned the British leader that if he goes ahead with ad hoc proposals to curb the influx of immigrants from other EU countries into Britain then that would spell the end of Britain’s membership with the bloc. Merkel has reminded Cameron that the free movement of EU citizens among member states is a cornerstone principle of the bloc, and that no state is entitled to impose unilateral restrictions on such movement.
Again, Cameron’s motivation for making this a contesting issue is because the UKIP has successfully tapped into public concerns over perceived immigration.
Figures actually show that most EU migrant workers are net contributors to their country of abode. One recent study by economists at University College, London, found that in Britain EU expatriate workers had contributed some £20 billion to the British public finances over the decade from 2001 to 2011.
It is only a negligible minority of EU migrants who might be classed as «social welfare tourists» – as the Tory rightwing and the UKIP have clamoured about.
However, out of fear of UKIP rivalry, Cameron has decided to play the demagogue card on immigration and hence posing as a tough bulwark against «European hordes» invading dear old England.
If Cameron dealt with public angst over immigration on an objective, rational basis, he might be able to dispel much of the misconception. For example, a major cause for the public concern is not so much immigration per se, but rather the underlying economic insecurity facing many British and EU citizens.
Given that Cameron’s government is a zealous advocate of austerity policies that option of honestly appraising perceived immigration as a result of austerity not its cause is simply not an option for Cameron. It would mean confronting his own neoliberal capitalist ideology. He is therefore obliged to indulge in demagoguery with the reactionary UKIP, which offers no solutions to these deep-seated problems whatsoever.
As Merkel and other EU leaders pull rank on Cameron over yet another straw man issue on immigration, the Tory leader is facing a double drubbing from Brussels.
That plays straight into the hands of the reactionary rightwing in British politics. And so for the hapless Cameron, the November nightmare is set to become self-fulfilling.