Let’s not let Cameron just ‘get on with it’

Posted By: March 07, 2016

Tom Kelly Monday Irish News (Belfast). Monday, March 7, 2016

When Prime Minister David Cameron said he would allow anti-EU cabinet ministers to keep their government jobs and campaign against him in the forthcoming referendum, he probably made the biggest political blunder of his career.

Cameron, like the late US president, Lyndon Johnson, may think it’s better to have them “inside the tent p***ing out than outside p***ing in”. He is wrong.

Just as John Major, his own predecessor, was wrong when he famously referred to his anti-European cabinet colleagues as “b***ards”.

Major, like Cameron, had a slim majority and was afraid to risk political heavyweights joining the right-wing misfits and causing problems. It was a costly misjudgment that only played well as a short-term tactic. Long-term it wrecked the Tory party politically.

This time the risks are even higher as the prime minister is actually playing roulette with the future and status of the country but more specifically he is risking the very union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It’s easy to take a lazy nationalist view and say, so what? Cameron as a Tory is the author of his own misfortunes and if blue-blood Tories and redneck Ukip supporters want to implode the UK, many in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may think, let them get on with it.

Major’s “b***ards” are back and amongst them are the same old Eurosceptics of the 1980s and 1990s, Redwood, Lilley and “something of the night about him” Michael Howard. Age has not dimmed them. They are joined by cabinet ministers Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and, of course, our own secretary of state, Theresa Villiers. Uninspiring doesn’t even come close to describing them. That two of the leading Eurosceptics are amongst the Tories worst-performing leaders says it all really.

Ms Villiers has had latent success in her Northern Ireland portfolio. A slow starter, she has been able to begrudgingly win over some admirers for her tough stance against the handout culture of Northern Ireland’s political classes. However, her decision to campaign for an out vote sets her firmly against the wellbeing of the majority of citizens here in Northern Ireland that she is supposed to protect as secretary of state. Northern Ireland is not Chipping Barnet.

Frankly she should have had enough nous to stay schtum.

Without wanting to take all the excitement out of the EU referendum for political anoraks, it’s likely that in Northern Ireland there will be a clear majority to remain in Europe.

Notwithstanding Sinn Féin’s historical opposition to the EU during many Irish referenda, they, along with the europhile SDLP, will encourage the nationalists to overwhelmingly say ‘Yes’ to Europe. As will the Alliance Party and the Greens.

The smart place for Mike Nesbitt’s Ulster Unionists would to be to side with the prime minister and say ‘Yes’, too. After all, Mike can logically argue that a Brexit will almost certainly fast track a second Scottish referendum, which in turn is more likely to fuel Scottish nationalism for an exit from the UK. Anyone who doubts this should read more carefully the statements of Scotland’s first minister. Scots having been hoodwinked once by Mr Cameron won’t be in a mood for compromise with Westminster if English votes swing a Brexit outcome.

Nesbitt can dampen criticism from the right by demonstrating that he cares about the Union first and foremost, strong at home and within the EU.

But Mike would also be right in choosing to position the UUP at the heart of farming community who through their representatives in the Ulster Farmers’ Union are unconvinced about proposals to leave the EU.

The DUP position on Europe will put them at odds with their twin pillars of support within rural communities and business. The party has gained a reputation for economic pragmatism through their ministries so many businesses may be unhappy at any aggressively-led anti EU campaign by DUP MLAs.

The sentiments of DUP MPs are more likely to be indulged.

The DUP opt-out position is more driven by their fear of leaving that space open to Ukip and the TUV than any deeply held ideological opposition.

In fact it will be embarrassing for DUP ministers to court potential US investment next week during their annual St Patrick’s Day jaunt as the sweetener of lower corporation tax will look pretty redundant if Northern Ireland ends up outside the EU.

As for me, I am almost instinctively against anything that unifies George Galloway, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.