Thus far, it seems everyone has learned the lessons of the last few elections: bringing up Europe is the kiss of death to any serious British election campaign. Staunchly anti-EU broadsheet the Telegraph has no mention of Europe among its key policy areas; the Daily Mail is more het up about foreigners from further afield with duskier skin tones; the Tories are being careful to avoid it after William Hague’s disastrous “Ten days to save the pound” rubbish from 2001; Labour aren’t keen to bring it up either thanks to the desire to present a united Blair/Brown front; the Lib Dems know that to appeal to the Tory voters they need to make significant gains they need to downplay their pro-EU stance. Plus, all the parties know that, thanks to Blair’s decision to grant a referendum on the EU constitution, nothing they say about Brussels in this campaign matters a jot anyway.
This avoidance of the EU issue is good for all parties – but especially for the Tories. They, after all, have the most to lose from the subject being brought to prominance. Labour can simply brush it off with the usual stuff about “five economic tests” and the upcoming referendum; the Tories risk showing their lack of unity on the issue once again, and yet again losing votes to the single-issue likes of UKIP and Veritas – neither of which have, so far in this election, made any impression whatsoever.
However, if Labour are really as worried as they profess about a potential Tory “back door” victory, they could do a lot worse than work out a way to bring up Europe in the final stages of the campaign.
For the majority of the population, it is something about which they neither know nor care enough to pay attention – but the anti-EU brigade is packed with obsessives, sitting alone, constantly rocking backwards and forwards and muttering to themselves about how Brussels wants to rape and murder their way of life (or something). Get this lot running around the place kicking up a fuss, it is the Tory supporters who are most likely to pay attention – and the Tory leadership, as supposedly the only mainstream Eurosceptic party, which will have to rise to the challenge. Then the Conservatives will either have to join in with UKIP and Kilroy’s anti-EU chorus, and risk seeming as rabid as the single-issue parties, or to desperately try and sound reasonable, and risk losing Eurosceptic votes in the process.
Labour, meanwhile, will be able to sit back, safe in the knowledge that their supporters are unlikely ever to go near either Veritas or UKIP. It could even prove yet another opportunity to go on about how great Gordon Brown’s stewardship of the economy has been, and how the Iron Chancellor will never allow Britain join the euro until it is indisputably in the national interest – using the Blair/Brown split over the EU as a plus point, where recent efforts have aimed to show them as of a single mind on most issues. This, in turn, could allow Labour to spin this election as having been about the EU after all, and use it as a starting point for campaigns in preparation for the UK’s EU presidency later this year and the constitutional referedum vote next autumn.
(A European, writing last week, also has a take on the EU and the election.)