The Battle for the Three Unions. It may sound like something out of a Tolkien story, but the prime minister is now, as a result of his dramatic election victory, very likely to be facing some key battles but on three different fronts.
The first union, which will be getting a lot of attention over the next few months, is that of the European Union and the promised referendum which may be heading towards us earlier than previously expected. This over recent years has been casting a long shadow over the future of the UK economy as potential overseas investors have held back on decisions to invest within the UK on the basis that “in a couple of years you could be outside the tariff wall”.
Now, of course, there are many arguments to and fro about what the UK economy might look like outside The Union, but that really isn’t the issue for many such overseas companies. They see the largest trading block in the world and therefore don’t want to take the risk of finding themselves outside it. As far as they are concerned, they see no reason why they should take any further investment risk. So, the longer we wait and the longer we dither, the more reasons we give for others to go elsewhere. It is not so much whether your view is pro or anti, but rather the need to just finally make up our minds! A referendum is likely to be sooner rather than later, but – of course – that will depend upon any deal that the PM can get with our EU partners.
This then directly leads us to the second union battle, and that is the battle for the union of the Conservative party. From a small cabal of Mr Major’s now often quoted “bastards” back in 1993, it is understood that the fervent anti-EU members have grown quite significantly in numbers. Although a couple crossed the floor over to UKIP, only one, Douglas Carswell, survived the election, with Mr Reckless no doubt regretting his somewhat “reckless” decision to have jumped ship too early.
Now – however – the anti-European Conservative MPs will be sharpening their teeth as they will no doubt have realised their potential power with such a modest commons majority. From some with reasoned views, to others described as “swivel eyed loons”, they have the opportunity to make the PM’s euphoria dissipate all too quickly into a repeat of the horrors that the Major administration suffered – even though he had a larger majority. These members are in effect UKIP-Lite, and could
mean that Mr Cameron may have to rely upon others for any more pro-European stance if any vote is to be won in the House regarding anything to do with the EU.
Some have compared this potential split in the Tories to the actual schism that occurred under Sir Robert Peel and the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. As a conservative PM, Sir Robert Peel was only able to achieve the repeal with the support of the opposition Whigs in Parliament, but in the process had to overcome the opposition of most of his own party – resulting in it being riven for some years. Many critics said he was a traitor to the Tory cause, or “a Liberal wolf in sheep’s clothing” because his final position reflected more “liberal” ideas. Is Mr. Cameron the new Sir Robert Peel?
Then we come to the battle for the third union, and that is the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The virtual annihilation of the opposition parties north of the border was an astonishing result. A “plaid wash” across the nation is going to create a high level of expectations amongst the enthused voters. Populism is a dangerous partner as this year’s adored idol can easily become next year’s false god. Now Ms. Sturgeon has another election to win in 2016, and no doubt she would like to carry the wave of nationalism into that vote as well. However, as true devolution starts and to ensure that with financial expenditure comes financial responsibility, voters will realise that the tax is being ordered, raised and levied by Holyrood and no longer by Westminster.
The current situation means though that for the moment the Nationalists rule the roost and thus it is for Mr Cameron to tread carefully to ensure that the union is not to be lost. At some stage, there will be another referendum, but hopefully by then the realism that falling oil values and falling carbon fuel production is making a fully independent Scottish nation, although still a viable state, a financially far weaker one than as part of the union.
It is to be hoped that time can take the emotion out of such a sensitive issue and ensure that economic value and logic overcomes misplaced populist pride – a clearly different stance from the pride of a nation with a great history and a great future.
Behind all of this, though, we should also remember that David Cameron has previously announced that this was going to be his final term as prime minister. The effect of this won’t necessarily be immediate but rather as the weeks pass his influence as leader will ebb away as future power masters in the party start to vie for support in the upcoming leadership campaign. This will mean that he will increasingly become a lame duck leader with even less control over any of the “revolting” members of his party.
It reminds me of a line from the musical Evita – “dice are rolling, knives are out, would-be presidents are all about”. This won’t be a pretty sight especially as the Tories don’t have a good reputation for such changes – there will be much bickering and bitching in the Junior Common Room.