Sunday, 19 May 2013

Never underestimate the power of a dead sheep

Denis Healey once described an assault from Lord Howe as akin to being savaged by a dead sheep.  For the current bunch of Tories, they would probably be more welcoming to someone suggesting an evening of ovine necrophilia than home truths being put forward by a man whom many have never forgotten for being the catalyst to Thatcher's political demise.

Howe's rallying-cry to Liberal Democrats and Labour to elevate the discussion over Europe beyond the petrified squabblings of Tory bunny-boilers caught in the headlights was impeccably timed - as it is clear that there remains at least some part of the Conservative party whose eyes do not swivel and who have considered that internal blood-letting over the EU is both unattractive and counter-productive.  There is a small, sensible core of what would be a perfectly acceptable centre-right party, trapped inside a group of xenophobic charlatans, led by a charisma-free loon who can please neither his left, his right nor the electorate.

For twenty years, the Tories have been trying to reconcile the pragmatists from the demagogues who are putting around the dangerous canard that the way to solve all Britain's problems is to retreat into a form of decaying autarky, and the latter have won.  Whether or not the phrase of "swivel-eyed loons" was used there is a disconnect between those who exist in a practical political environment and the backwoods, non-specifically-disgruntled "activist" base.

What the Europhobes cannot articulate is how their hostility to Europe would benefit the UK, beyond providing further impetus to implement Bangladeshi-style labour laws and remove civil liberties and the rights of the citizen.  This alone should be something that the majority fears - and this should be articulated by all politicians from Miliband through to Ken Clarke; the lies and half-truths are accepted because there is no strong challenge and because of lazy, sensationalist reporting (when the organ in question is not ideologically-tainted in the first place).  

Lord Howe's contribution is therefore both welcome and necessary, because there is an honourable tradition of realistic European politics from within the Tory tradition.  The perception that propitiating UKIP will do the Tories any good needs to be given a clear, well-defined once-over, and there needs to be a cross-party presentation of the pro-EU case - Miliband himself has done himself some good by arguing that the only time for a referendum is when there is any proposal to transfer significant powers to Brussels (in line with the Liberal Democrats' 2010 manifesto).

Cameron is trying to run with the hare, and hunt with the hounds.  When he has to get the damaged goods of Jeremy Hunt to deny any rift in his party, you can tell he is on the skids - what is needed now is for the debate to be moved away from the Tories and into the heart of political dialogue.  Howe is right that the left needs to articulate the case, but the real attraction for the rest of us is that then the Tories can implode without much risk.

The Tory backbenches are full of the scared, thoughtless chancers who have made it very difficult to take the party seriously.  The lazy stereotyping and arrogance betrays their inability to break free of the idea that they have some kind of divine right to rule denied purely because not enough people voted for them last time round.  Howe may do nothing to ease the problems in the Tory party by criticising Cameron's ineptitude, but he is starting a much more noble project of defending the national interest.  

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