Could George Osborne come out for the Out campaign?

It seems that only another crisis in Europe will decide whether Britain stays in the EU

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

17 October 2015

9:00 AM

Westminster may have been guilty of ignoring the Scottish referendum until the last minute, but no one can accuse it of doing the same with the EU one. No one knows when this vote will take place, yet every conversation about the politics of this parliament revolves around the subject. The referendum, and its aftermath, will determine not only whether Britain stays in the European Union but also who the next prime minister will be and whether the Tories win a landslide in 2020.

The In and Out campaigns are up and running, even though David Cameron’s renegotiation with the EU is far from complete. With Labour failing to provide competent or credible opposition, the battle between In and Out will quickly become the most gripping political story in the land.

Neither campaign knows when the referendum will be, and the government doesn’t, either. Autumn next year is the preferred date, but I understand that the cabinet committee handling the EU renegotiation has not even had a discussion about when it will be. One member of the committee predicts that, at the current pace, the vote will end up happening far later than people expect, some time in 2017. Another admits: ‘We were hoping to be further ahead than we are now. But this unexpected event came up.’

This ‘unexpected event’ is, of course, the migrant crisis. This mass movement of people is preoccupying European leaders and EU institutions. European Councils that Cameron would have expected to revolve around Britain’s renegotiation have been dominated by the refugee issue.

But the flow of people into Europe from Africa, the Middle East and Asia isn’t just affecting the schedule of the renegotiation, it is changing how British voters think about the EU. One of those intimately involved in the government’s strategy for the renegotiation and the referendum says: ‘Out popped up in the polls because you had Calais on the TV in August and then the whole European situation in September.’ Europe’s incompetent handling of this crisis, exemplified by Angela Merkel’s rapidly rescinded invitation to Syrians to come to Germany to claim asylum, has added to a sense that the European Union increasingly brings Britain problems, not solutions.

What is going on in the renegotiation is far from clear. One Eurosceptic cabinet member is irritated that the government doesn’t seem to realise the strength of its position. A senior No. 10 aide complains that those in Downing Street handling the talks are being too secretive with colleagues, while the diplomatic community in London has been reduced to asking journalists what they think Cameron wants.

It is clear that the government doesn’t want to push publicly for anything that it isn’t extremely confident of getting; note how the only renegotiation goal that Cameron mentioned in his conference speech was getting Britain out of ‘ever closer union’. But a consequence of this is that the government doesn’t look like it is asking for much, which pushes more Tory donors and activists towards the Out camp. As the renegotiation goes on, the two campaigns will spar. The In campaign’s appointment of Stuart Rose as its chairman reveals Downing Street’s influence. Not only was he ennobled by Cameron, but he has made Eurosceptic noises in the past. He has suggested that the In campaign understands that it needs to court voters with no emotional connection to the EU. Appointing him also avoids having someone who backed Britain joining the euro as the face of the campaign. But Rose’s role does tie the campaign to the establishment. The In campaign is dismissive of this criticism, arguing that if the public was as anti-establishment as the pundits claim it wouldn’t have elected a Conservative majority government with Cameron as Prime Minister.

It is puzzling why no major Tory figure has come out for leaving. Given that a plurality of people who voted Tory at the last election favour a British departure from the EU, this is a Tory failure. But rather than courting Tory big beasts, the Out campaign is trying to win over activists. One senior figure argues that this bottom-up approach is most likely to deliver results and once you have one leadership candidate, others will follow. In others words, get the activists, then Boris and, finally, squeeze George.

At the moment, it is almost impossible to imagine Osborne doing anything other than campaigning for In. I am informed that he is irritated by the tendency of some Eurosceptics to suggest that all of Britain’s problems would be solved if we came out of the EU. But there is an interesting precedent for Osborne changing his mind. When the Tories were in opposition, he was fiercely sceptical of localism and regional devolution. Now he is the champion of the northern powerhouse and is devolving as much as he can to city regions. What changed Osborne’s mind was a mix of experience and political calculation, and one of his cabinet allies speculates that the same could happen on the EU, especially if the polls begin to move in Out’s favour.

At the moment, Osborne is against cabinet collective responsibility being abandoned for the referendum. He doesn’t want to see Conservative ministers at the top of both campaigns. Interestingly, No. 10 seems far more open to the suspension of collective responsibility than before. At the Tory conference in Manchester last week, several of Cameron’s closest allies indicated that this was where he would end up. It would make it that much easier to put the party back together again post referendum.

Ultimately, this referendum will be determined by events outside the control of Downing Street or either campaign. If all is quiet on the European front between now and the vote, Britain will, without any great enthusiasm, back staying in. But another flare-up of the eurozone crisis, or a further surge of refugees that the EU fails to tackle, could see the status quo upended.


eu1The Spectator is hosting an evening discussion ‘Is the EU bad for business?’ at 7pm on Tuesday 20 October at The Royal College of Surgeons, WC2. Speakers include: Dominic Cummings, director of the ‘No’ campaign and Will Straw, executive director of the ‘Yes to Europe’ campaign and is chaired by Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.

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Show comments
  • frank davidson

    If Boris is forced to be an outer, to further leadership aspirations, then George will follow, particularly if negotiations go badly.

    • Andrew Cole

      Both Boris aand Georgie are outers. They are just playing things safe and trying to sense whether it is beneficial to their aspirations to come out or not. Unlike Cameron they wouldn’t be shedding any tears if the ‘out’ vote wins.

  • Man on the Clapham omnibus

    It all depends on the other EU leaders; neither Cameron nor Osbourne are likely to die-in-the-ditch trying to defend a unsatisfactory renegotiation for the sake of Le Projet European.

  • Oh stop it, James. No major politician since 1975 has come out against the UK being in the EU, and Osborne won’t differ from that template. Nobody ever seems to say that the EU is the world’s largest protectionist trade bloc, for the obverse of free trade internally is massive external tariffs. Any country surely requires two preconditions for its existencethe ability to control its borders and the ability to make its own laws. All EU members states are regions of a USEU. Some are California and some are Vermont, but none are truly independent states.

  • Dangerman

    This EU referendum should have been pushed into 2018 if allowed so. There’s no way we can get anything significant negotiated in 2017 with German and French elections then. It may should have been “get on with it” in 2016 (though would compromise Cameron and see him gone within a year and Osborne’s chances being future leader) or later in 2018 with a re-negotiation able to please a majority of the British public.

    • marvin

      Merkel is definitely on her way out! Her policies are already in direct conflict with those of her predecessor Kohl and well out of touch with the people! It is too early to judge Manuel Valls and/or if he will be elected for the next elections, a pretty face but not too convincing on his Hollande take over.

  • paul

    .. as an homosexual or a transgender or a ladyboy !!

    • Phonetoholic

      Hate crime against transgender folk in Manchester is up by 75% year-on-year.
      I blame the socialist one party city state.

      • marvin

        I have made many applications for employment so that I can change my job. i would spend hours filling in numerous forms and receiving no response. In complete frustration – I filled in one form and stated that I was a ‘Black Transgender’ and guess what? I still received no response!

  • Mr Creosote

    When Turkey is allowed to join the EU and it’s 76 million citizens given the right to roam, that will be the time for us to leave – and I don’t really care where Osborne fits into the equation.

    • Andrew Cole

      That’ll be next year then after the latest EU deal with Turkey is now on the table??

      • marvin

        Turkey is as much opposed to the West as all the Middle East are. The only reason that Turkey wants to join the EU, is to obtain the same financial grants that it has seen Poland and the Ukraine get.
        Since Turkey realised that its potential membership was tenuous, it has complained about the number of immigrants that it is having to deal with and the expense involved. Thus obtaining money from the ever generous EU, who dishes out our money lavishly.

        • Andrew Cole

          I agree entirely.

  • John Andrews

    The EU Commission plans to bribe the Turks, with gold and visas, to stem the flood of migrants. So we will have a flood of Turks. Why is this better than a flood of Syrians, Afghans and Pakistanis?

    • Dominic Stockford

      It isn’t. There are more of them. And you should hear what a British man from Turkey that I know says about Erdogan and this plan….

  • thomasaikenhead

    “and whether the Tories win a landslide in 2020.”

    Utter fantasy as the Conservative Party is poised to tear itself apart over the EU just as it did in the past over The Corn Laws!

    • Richard Eldritch

      That idea seems to be a life line that the Corbynite left is hoping exists but I doubt it. I think the Conservatives have long come to terms with the fact that some are pro some are anti EU. With an open vote I can’t see them coming apart over the issue. Ukip have helped of course by making leaving the EU a respectable and even rational choice. If Labour are counting on it I suspect they’re going to be disappionted.

    • Dominic Stockford

      None of the parties are in complete agreement on this matter. Why it is only the Tories who will find it difficult is a mystery to those who stand back and look at the entire forest, not one particular tree.

      • thomasaikenhead

        Because the Tories are in government and the article mentioned the idea of a Tory landslide?

        • Dominic Stockford

          No article ever properly covers the deep divisions with in the Labour Party on this issue. Which is just as relevant – for a Tory landslide to be prevented (if that is what is wished) Labour also have to survive the referendum process.

  • berosos_bubos

    ten thousand third world’ers a week is anything but quiet.

  • rtj1211

    I’m sure you could make it happen if you, the Out campaign, had exclusive access to Gorgeous George bonking prostitutes on video……..

  • jeffersonian

    ‘One senior figure argues that this bottom-up approach is most likely to deliver results and once you have one leadership candidate, others will follow. In others words, get the activists, then Boris and, finally, squeeze George.’

    What a sorry state of affairs in the Conservative Party when only Boris and Osborne are considered ‘big beasts’.

    As for a big beast Tory ‘outer’ may I nominate Owen Paterson. See how Osborne shrinks by simple comparison?

    • Dominic Stockford

      Yes, Owen Paterson should be seen more.

  • jeffersonian

    ‘What changed Osborne’s mind was a mix of experience and political calculation, and one of his cabinet allies speculates that the same could happen on the EU, especially if the polls begin to move in Out’s favour.’

    Translation: Georgie’s way to determine where to go politically is not to consult political and moral principles, hard since he doesn’t really have any. Instead he wets his finger and launches it into the air eager find out which direction the wind is blowing.

    That’s the state of the Conservative ‘leadership’ in 2015.

    • Dominic Stockford

      But is also sensible in this instance, given the nature of this particular debate,

    • marvin

      Going the way we are – there will be only one Parliament. The EU central commission!

  • Richard Young

    Totally agree that the renegotiation stance could be very much stronger.Keep in mind that we opened our borders to Eastern Europe’s unemployed a full seven years before all the other so called ‘good’ Europeans eg.France Germany.A time to repay your debt Latvia,Estonia,Lithuania,Pol…et al.

    • Dominic Stockford

      And what they are asking needs to be out in the open.

      • marvin

        Just what happens to the huge amount of money paid into the EU for a start!
        As for the rest of the list – how long do you want to read for?

  • smith

    I keep trying to imagine what he’ll look like when he’s completely bald. An alcoholic Depardieu as painted by Lucien Freud invariably intrudes.

  • Bodkinn

    To use an old adage Mr Cameron needs to ‘tell the truth and shame the devil’. If he really knows he cannot get significant changes then he should admit it and not make himself look pathetic by presenting us with a load of trivia and saying it is in any way meaningful. No fair minded person will condemn him for giving it his best shot and failing. The truth is that in the end we will be ask to take the EU more or less as it is now and as it will become – which includes the euro and federalisation – or go back to doing things our way which of course we did successfully for a very long time. I fully believe that if we choose the former the election of the next Labour government – whenever this is – will start us inexorably down the road to the time when words like ‘England’ will no longer factually be the names of countries but just regions of Europe.

    • mikewaller

      “Did things successfully..!!!!!!!!!!!!” What dream world are you living in? Even Churchill accepted that the UK’s twentieth century history had to be one of inexorable decline. Had we not been enmeshed in Nato and subsequently the European Community I have little doubt that our fate would have been much the same as has happened to most empires when they came to the end of the road: being comprehensively trashed by the new boys one the block. Going it alone at a time when America’s attention is turning West to China, Putin want yet more international trouble to mask the economic catastrophe he had helped bring about in Russia, and the World’s manufacturing capacity is starting to move way ahead of any conceivable global ability to buy all the products produce, would be the act of massively self-delusional lunatics.

      • Bodkinn

        Decline agreed, extinguishment disagree. Churchill’s ideas of decline began from our position in his youth when we were a great empire but did not end with European regionalisation. To a man like him it would have been unthinkable for us to ever be less than our own masters no matter how far down we slipped in the world rankings.

        • mikewaller

          But as Churchill’s civil servants warned each other “Remember he is a Victorian!” So his world view is likely to be of little help to us now. Most intelligent comment I have come across tells me that if we left the EE the only deal on offer to us would be that “enjoyed” by Norway: make 90% of the present contribution but have no say whatsoever in the development of policy. We would also have to negotiate our own trade agreements with all the countries and bodies that the EE currently deals with. In doing so, we would be in a far, far weaker negotiating position. However, the really big problem is the third one I listed above. We are moving into unprecedented waters in which for the first time ever there will be far more industrial workers in the world than can be economically employed. To be a comparatively high wage economy – and a not particularly good one in terms of productivity – against that background, would be an absolute disaster if not part of a larger trading bloc.

          • marvin

            The original intention of the EU commission was that it was supposed seek out and negotiate increased trade for Europe. It has done nothing! As regards to our trade agreements, the Chairman of the Global Britain Business Group would disagree with you. We would be in a far stronger position to re-negotiate our own trade agreements, and free from the restrictions applied by the EU, our agreements could become far more favourable. The EU does not favour the UK leaving the EU – because we would be in a position to offer greater competition. You are also wrong in that ‘there will be far more industrial workers in the world than can be employed’. If you look at the figures of the number of people employed in the “Services” you will see that these have increased hugely while the industrial workers have declined drastically. Due to the number of EU immigrants into the UK, employment tended towards lower end work. British Industry has declined substantially under the EU and because of the EU. The decline of our Motor Trade was due in part to the US but mainly due to the EU. Due to the EU, the standards of output and British quality goods have also fallen. There is also a lack of investment in Technology because innovation is not encouraged. There is also a lack of interest in entrepreneurs and small businesses for the same reason. No – you have been led to believe what you are meant to believe, while a huge number of the population have questioned the glaring discrepancies!