Cameron’s EU speech is a gamble in northern England

We have plenty of Euro-sceptics up here, but the economy, unemployment and public spending cuts are much more on people’s minds. The Guardian Northerner‘s political commentor Ed Jacobs sets the context

In the wake of last year’s by-elections in Middlesbrough and Rotherham one Nigel Farage, esteemed leader of UKIP, declared proudly that his was now the “second party in the North.”

Call it a statement of the obvious or hubris, depending on your point of view, but there is no doubt that unlike many other previous anti-EU parties, UKIP is causing the Conservatives a world of problems.

And so, faced with an increasingly Eurosceptic parliamentary party, fuelled in equal measure by ideology and concerns about the party loosing supporters to UKIP, David Cameron will today make his long awaited speech on Europe which is seen by many as a defining moment in his premiership. Just as his predecessor Margaret Thatcher went to Belgium in 1988 to deliver her now famous speech in Bruges against closer integration, Cameron was due to travel to the Netherlands to call for a referendum. Following the Algerian hostage crisis, plans changed and the promise will now be made, perhaps more appropriately, in London.

This will not necessarily be a straight in-out option. Rather, he looks set to put to the vote the results of a renegotiation of the UK’s position in Europe. That is as long as his party is re-elected in 2015.

But with UKIP declaring the north to be fertile ground, what does Cameron need to say to appease northern voters? Polling by Opinium Research for the Observer last weekend had a number of interesting findings.

First and foremost there is more than a degree of scepticism about whether Cameron can actually achieve what he is calling for. Asked how likely they felt it is that the Government would be able to renegotiate successfully the terms of EU membership, 53% of respondents in Yorkshire and the Humber, 42% in the North West and 48% in the North East answered ‘unlikely’. An average of only 25% of northern voters believed that the Government could achieve its ambitions for a new settlement.

A straight in-out referendum would meanwhile be popular, with 53% of those in the North East and West and 44% in Yorkshire and the Humber deciding that it would be more likely that they would vote for a party if it promised such a straight forward referendum.

A follow-up question, in the context of a host of business leaders publicly warning of the economic consequences of the UK losing its place at the EU top table, pressed whether EU membership was a price worth paying if it benefited the economy. Overall, 40% of northern voters agreed, clearly ahead of the 32% who did not.

Finally, 53% of northern voters concluded that if renegotiation isn’t possible, which it may not be if the German Chancellor Angela Merkel has anything to do with it, it would be best to leave the EU altogether. Opinions are meanwhile fairly evenly split across the three regions over whether or not a withdrawal would significantly harm the economy or not.

Does any of this actually matter? For many of Cameron’s backbenchers, today’s speech will be greeted with enthusiasm as a sign that the Prime Minister finally gets it – that the public are fed up with EU ‘interference’.
For Cameron however, this could be a speech that he would best avoid for a three simple reasons:

a) Both John Major and Margaret Thatcher ended up being fatally weakened on the issue of Europe. This is not a good omen for the current incumbent who hopes to go on in office until 2020.

b) In its most recent issues tracker, Ipsos Mori found that the EU remained way down the north’s list of priorities, with just 4% of respondents declaring it to be either the main or at the very least an important issue for the country.

c) The danger is that Cameron will now look as though he has his priorities completely wrong in making Europe the subject of such a significant speech rather the economy or tackling unemployment which are of far more concern to the north.

Today’s speech has the potential to mark a pivotal moment in the road to the 2015 election. It’s unclear so far to which party the Brownie points will go.

Ed Jacobs is a political consultant at the Leeds based Public Affairs Company and devolution correspondent for the centre-left political and policy blog, Left Foot Forward. © 2013 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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