EU Referendum

PETER OBORNE: We knew the EU hates democracy. Now it seems our leaders do too

This ought, by rights, to have been David Cameron’s worst week so far as Prime Minister.

It was the week he sold out everything he once professed to believe, the week he turned his back on the voters and became the commander-in-chief of an arrogant political elite, and the week he tore up the Conservative manifesto on which he fought the general election.

When David Cameron pledged a referendum in his famous Bloomberg speech three years ago, he promised to deliver ‘fundamental, far-reaching change’ in Britain’s relations with Europe. He hasn’t achieved this, or anything resembling it, and since he is an intelligent man he most certainly knows this.

True, the Prime Minister has been sharply criticised by a tough and independent-minded Press. And voters have been dismayed by his lack of integrity and resolve: polls have shifted sharply in favour of quitting Europe since the squalid details of Mr Cameron’s pathetic EU deal became known.

This ought, by rights, to have been David Cameron’s worst week so far as Prime Minister, writes Peter Oborne

 Yet so far he has actually paid a negligible political price and, despite that shift in the polls, seems confident his EU deal will win the day. Part of this is down to the lamentable conduct of Jeremy Corbyn, who culpably has had nothing to say about an issue which will determine the shape of Britain for generations to come.

It is simply astonishing that he did not even raise the subject at Prime Minister’s Questions last week. Mr Corbyn’s inertia amounts to the most wretched dereliction of duty by an Opposition leader since Iain Duncan Smith failed to ask penetrating questions about Tony Blair’s invasion of Iraq 13 years ago.

But there is a second, more troubling reason for David Cameron’s Teflon-coated week. He has used the power and muscle of his Downing Street machine to bribe, cajole and threaten eurosceptic ministers to stay in line.

Conscious that his negotiations cannot withstand scrutiny, the PM has silenced internal critics by ruthlessly enforcing collective Cabinet responsibility.

This has led to a grotesque double standard at the heart of the Government. On the one hand, the Prime Minister no longer bothers to hide the fact that he will be leading the Remain In Europe campaign. He has even casually authorised his party chairman, out-and-out europhile Lord Feldman, to raise funds for it.

On the other hand, eurosceptic Cabinet ministers have been gagged. Of course they are complicit in this, predominantly for self-interested reasons. Indeed, the conduct of these senior politicians is, in some cases, beneath contempt.

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At the Tory Party conference last October, Home Secretary Theresa May memorably warned about the dangers of mass immigration, about the threat it poses to social cohesion, and the urgent need to control Britain’s borders.

Yet Mrs May now seems not to mind about mass immigration after all. For last week she indicated she supports the Remain campaign, even though David Cameron has achieved nothing to seriously challenge EU laws allowing the free movement of workers between member states — laws which must be tackled if we are to reduce the number of migrants coming to the UK.

Mrs May has put her career before her patriotism. This is the kind of selfish and gutless conduct that causes politicians to be despised.

Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond once claimed that he was a strong critic of the European Union. Today, for nakedly careerist reasons, he has become a leading supporter of the EU.

It looks like Business Secretary Sajid Javid is taking the same cynical course.

To be fair, we know that a handful of cabinet ministers, led by Iain Duncan Smith and Chris Grayling, will indeed campaign to leave Europe. I also expect Justice Secretary Michael Gove to stick with his principles and join the Leave camp.

There is no questioning the honour or integrity of these Cabinet ministers. However they, too, are open to criticism because they have been comprehensively outmanoevred.

They should never have allowed the Prime Minister to insist on their silence. By doing so they allowed the Remain campaign to shape the narrative of events, since the Prime Minister and his allies can campaign for Britain to stay in Europe while they can’t say a thing. It is, of course, true that other voices are there to fill the anti-EU vacuum. UKIP’s Nigel Farage — without whom the referendum would never have been held — is a powerful spokesman, as are many backbench Tories, among whom John Redwood is especially clear-headed and eloquent. So, too, is David Davis.

But the fact is that no mainstream political figure has had the guts to stand up for what he believes, and to resign his frontbench position and join the fight.

The ranks of the Leave camp are far more sparse even than during the last referendum under Harold Wilson in 1975, when Tony Benn, Enoch Powell, Labour Cabinet heavyweight Peter Shore and others joined a team with high intellect and experience.

Make no mistake, this is a dangerous moment for democracy. Polls suggest that approximately half of all voters have gnawing doubts about the European Union. Yet all the major political parties are strongly in favour.

This gulf between politicians and the electorate is especially troubling because the referendum is ultimately about democracy — and, thanks to the cowardice of our political class, democracy is precisely what we are not going to get.

Perhaps this is not so much of a coincidence. Over the past few decades the European Commission has worked hard to abolish what we in Britain have traditionally regarded as democratic politics.

Decision-making has been moved away from national parliaments. On most issues that matter, from the economy to immigration, decisions which viscerally affect the lives of voters are now taken by anonymous, unaccountable bureaucrats rather than politicians who are responsible to their voters.

The prime ministers of Greece, Italy and Spain today are effectively branch managers for the European Central Bank and pro-EU Goldman Sachs, which hold their countries’ purse-strings. We have come very close to the abolition of politics, replacing it with rule by bureaucrats and bankers.

And David Cameron, by determinedly crushing debate, is shamelessly going along with this lack of democratic accountability.

Just possibly his manoeuvres may come back to haunt him. The smell from them is simply too putrid to be ignored. Already disenchanted voters may yet identify the entire campaign to remain in the EU with a sleazy, incompetent bunch of politicians who have let them down again and again.

The chance to tell them to get lost — and vote ‘Leave’ — may yet prove irresistible.

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