That speech: just a ripple on the surface of British politics?

Last week I commented on David Cameron’s speech on Britain and the EU, where he promised an in-out referendum, following a “renegotiation” if the Conservatives win the next General Election in 2015. For some days after I though this was a decisive moment in British politics, in which Mr Cameron seized the initiative, and the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, lost his chance to win the next election. A week on, the dust has settled and the news is dominated by other stories. Was is such a decisive moment, or a mere ripple, a failing prime minister making a promise he can’t deliver?

The weekend polls show no decisive shift, with the coalition parties trending up a tad, but Labour still comfortably ahead, following a trend already evident before the speech. One poll seemed to show a big advance by the Conservatives at the expense of UKIP – but on further examination it looks as if this has more to do with polling methodology than people changing their voting preferences. Mr Miliband’s calculation appears to be that the main issue for British politics is the economy, and so the best thing to do is to change the subject back to this issue. His line that the speech hurts the economy because it creates uncertainty, that old argument against any form of decisive leadership, seems to be carrying weight with the British public, according to a further poll published by The Independent – though this also showed Tory support rising. And in the ephemeral world of British political commentary that should be enough to say that this is just a small tactical victory for Mr Cameron, making his party less vulnerable to UKIP, and not much more. But I think two big things have changed, and a big problem has opened up.

Firstly, Mr Miliband has made a serious strategic error, even if its significance will not show up much before 2015. His strategy should be to focus the political debate onto a small number of subjects and overwhelm the opposition there. This is a strategy I have called “the same, only different” following a 20th Century advertising campaign for a product I have long forgotten. It was used by Tony Blair’s New Labour to devastating effect in 1997. Basically you shadow your opponent’s policies in almost every detail except for a small number carefully chosen issues, plus a big investment in mood music to make your party appear more caring and more competent. I remember the exasperation of Tories; whenever they came up with a new policy to try and get an edge on Labour, Labour promptly adopted it as their own. It prevented the other side from changing the agenda. This seems to have been what Mr Miliband is trying to do, albeit without actually committing to any policies just yet (again following Mr Blair’s example). He is not creating sharp policy differences with the government, and making the main focus of his attack the economy. He is trying to create the right mood music by painting the government as by turns gratuitously nasty, and shambolic and incompetant. This strategy was slowly paying off.

But Mr Cameron has hit Labour below the waterline. He has created a clear area of policy difference, where he is probably more in tune with the British public than Mr Miliband, and one in which he can guarantee coverage from Britain’s still-important press. But also the issue makes Mr Miliband look weak, indecisive and un-prime ministerial. That could be fatal. What Mr Miliband actually should have done was welcomed Mr Cameron’s speech and adopted his policies as his own. That would have taken the wind totally out of the Tory sails.

The second way that Mr Cameron’s move may be decisive is that it may have turned the advancing tide of British Euroscepticism, while at the same time unifying his bitterly Eurosceptic party. I have read Mr Cameron’s speech, and the most striking thing about it is how Europhile it is. He has well understood the arguments for Britain staying in, and put them forward. Britons are a suspicious, conservative bunch as the 2011 AV referendum showed. Leaving the EU would be a big step into the unknown, and the more people think about it, the more nervous they are likely to become. And yet the sceptics are happy because they have their precious in-out referendum.

Mr Cameron’s speech was a genuine act of decisive political leadership. There are risks, but there always are. There is also a risk that the EU needs to take forward a treaty change that we are forced to put to a referendum that is then lost. This risk has now been sidestepped, because we now have the opportunity to package it up with more popular changes and put it too an in-out referendum.

But there is a big problem with Mr Cameron’s speech, which I did not pick up last week. Aside from its tactical genius, it is intellectually vacuous. Its economics is based on a fatuous understanding of international competition and the fear of Europe falling behind the developing economies. Its analysis of how the EU needs to be changed is hot air with no concrete proposals. A single market without harmonised rules may sound good, but what does it mean in practice? I really don’t understand how this wishful vision breaks down into nitty-gritty negotiating points. Mr Cameron badly need somebody with intellectual heft to lead the negotiation – the job the Lord Cockfield did for Mrs Thatcher in developing the original European Single Market in 1992. The risk is that he will make no headway in the negotiations, and waste an opportunity to improve both Britain’s role with the EU, and the stability of the EU itself. That’s the big problem the speech opens up.