I’ve heard a number of commentators and journalists over the last few days, and even one Labour MP, talk about the current Tory ‘chaos’ regarding the EU, with backbenchers in ‘revolt’ against Cameron’s lack of promise of an EU ‘in/out referendum’ during this parliament, and the ‘rise’ of UKIP as a threat to the Tory party because of its attraction to the Tory eurosceptic fringe.
The consensus of these commentators was along the lines of this ‘chaos’ representing a grave threat to the Tories as the party risks ‘eating itself’ at a time when it is haemorrhaging votes to UKIP.
It’s true that the situations presents a serious risk to the Tories, but to call it ‘chaos’ is incorrect. It may have started with a relatively small number of fringe Tory MPs who see our membership of the EU as the central issue of our times – but it has been grasped by the Tory media machine as their ‘Battle of the Bulge‘.
In late 1944, Nazi Germany was in retreat and facing an almost irretrievable situation. Hitler thought he had spotted an opportunity for a bold move that would reverse the tide, in spite of internal turmoil within his command – he evaded several assassination attempts during 1944, including the famous ‘Wolf’s Lair’ bomb attempt.
Identifying a weak spot in the allied lines and taking advantage of helpful weather conditions that grounded allied air cover, he concentrated a huge proportion of his forces to launch an attack through the Ardennes forest on his enemies.
The sudden appearance of so much armoured force at a weak point in the line threw the allies into retreat over a wide area – the so-called ‘bulge’ in their lines that gave rise to the name of the battle.
It was an incredibly high-risk strategy, as defeat in that battle would sap German strength fatally and accelerate their defeat – but Hitler reasoned that his defeat was inevitable eventually and that his one hope of victory, or at least of creating a situation in which he could negotiate a truce while he concentrated his efforts on the Russian advance, was in taking the huge risk.
He came closer to success than most people realise, but last-ditch resistance and a change in the weather that allowed allied air power to attack his landbound forces, eventually sealed his defeat.
So it is with the Tories now. Cameron faced rebellion from a section of his party who perceived his weakness and have been trying to pursue their monomania – an EU exit. However, over the past few months there has been a distinct shift in the Tories’ handling of the EU issue.
In January, Cameron made his supposedly game-changing EU speech, in which his promise of an in-out referendum in 2017 was intended to defuse his back-bench revolt and to bring onside the section of the electorate that agreed with the agitators. However, within a week or so his ‘bounce’ in the polls had evaporated:
In the meantime, the constant over-use of Nigel Farage by the BBC on any politics-related programme – his airtime far exceeded what was justified for a party that doesn’t even have an MP and is populated by ‘eccentrics’ to put it kindly – was creating a phenomenon whereby a portion of the electorate that either didn’t know or didn’t care what other policies lay behind UKIP’s headline anti-EU stance were giving him credence.
On top of all this, Labour’s poll ratings were consistently 10-14 points ahead of the Tories, and the Conservatives’ lamentable performance on the economy and their obvious disdain for any concept of social justice and care for the vulnerable was providing easy ammunition for Ed Miliband and co. The dire economic performance (to justify continued and deepening austerity) and planned impoverishment are a core part of the Tory plan, so this trend to Labour was set to continue unabated.
Suddenly, there was a change in the pattern of media coverage and Tory response. Even more than is usual in the rabid right-wing rags like the Mail, the whole Tory press has focused on the EU, while even supposedly serious organisations like the BBC have started to make the EU the main theme of broadcast after broadcast. Meanwhile, Cameron and co have pandered more and more to their ‘lunatic fringe’, encouraging them to be ever more vocal and demanding.
The cumulative effect of this has been to create a creeping impression, without often actually saying as much, that the EU is somehow the cause of our woes, while an exit would be the panacea. Over a very short period, the EU and the stance of various parties on it has become a constant, leading theme on almost any politics-related programme.
That this ‘creeping suggestion’ has been effective so far was evidenced by the performance of UKIP in the recent local elections. While the scale of the ‘achievement’ has been vastly exaggerated, because the elections took place almost exclusively in Tory-heartland shires, it is enough to show the suggestibility of some sections of the electorate.
I believe that Tory strategists assessed the situation and, a few months ago, decided that their only hope of electoral success at the next general election – or at least of preventing an outright Labour win – lies in launching their own ‘Ardennes offensive’ to change the lines of battle.
Just as Hitler threw almost all his forces at a single weak point in the line in 1944, so the Tories believe they have identified a crucial Labour ‘weakness’ in its pro-EU stance and have thrown all their efforts at it in an ‘all or nothing’ gamble. This gambit involves swamping the public consciousness with talk of the EU and its supposed role in our troubles, and banging that drum over and over and over in the hope that enough people will fall into step with its rhythm to erode Labour’s poll leads.
It’s a massively risky plan. By making the EU the all-pervading issue – in blatant and willful ignorance of the facts – the Tories risk dividing their core vote and losing any remotely-marginal seat at the next election.
But they had little to lose, and desperate people do desperate things. Polling in March was suggesting a 110-seat majority for Labour at the next election:
- From ukpollingreport.co.uk, 20 Feb.
while Labour were enjoying strong leads in the vast majority of metrics:
- From the ConHome website.
Faced with decimation at the next election and no prospect of changing any of the factors that were driving their demise, the Tories have opted to roll the dice and stake everything on the outcome.
Plugging the gap
In the final analysis, Hitler’s gamble was considered a desperate, even suicidal one, doomed to failure. But for a short period the situation was balanced on a knife-edge and anyone looking at the ‘bulge’ on the map might have considered that the offensive was succeeding. It was only desperate resistance by ill-equipped units that managed to delay the German advance until Patton’s 3rd Army could move up and help throw the Germans into a catastrophic defeat.
When the German offensive began and Allied forces in the Ardennes were retreating, Allied generals had to formulate emergency countermeasures and rush any available unit into the area to plug the gap.
At the moment, the Tory gambit is having some success – although not as much as the media would have us believe. Polls showing a Labour lead of only 6 points are pounced on by commentators who talk at length about how poorly Labour must be doing to have only such a lead in mid-Parliament, trying to create a public perception that Labour is weak and unelectable.
But a YouGov poll today for the Sunday Times – hardly a friend to Labour – shows a continuing Labour lead of 11% – down slightly from its recent 12%, but exceptionally resilient when, going by the media coverage, we’ve effectively lived in a one-party state since the Thatcher funeral – and still representing a 90-seat Labour majority at the next election:
However, there is no room for complacency. The media blitzkrieg to turn the EU into the central issue for the next two years to the General Election will continue unabated until Labour formulates an effective line against it.
Labour needs to do this with despatch – and I’m sure is working on it. It shouldn’t be impossible to find an effective line of counterattack – because the facts are on our side. The EU is not the source of our troubles – woeful and probably wilful mismanagement of the economy and a series of growth-killing cuts are – and our membership of the EU is a protection against even worse and more rapid measures.
It will take some boldness for Labour to change the narrative. Some of the things which, so far, Labour’s leaders seem to have felt were better left unsaid for the sake of the ‘middle ground’ will have to be stated outright and repeatedly, to get more people to see through the obvious but attractive (to some) BS peddled by Farage and the media and increasingly adopted by the Tory front bench.
The situation is serious, but not desperate. It requires bold moves, but well-calculated ones. Not panic or the desperate dice-throwing of the Tories but a firm, reasoned, persistent pressing-home of truths that are obvious – but obviously ignored by large sections of the media and therefore unseen by those whose sources of news consists of those organisations. It will need some creativity, too, to bypass or subvert the dominance of organisations that are friendly to the Tories.
We need to get to it without delay – and you can play your part by spreading the word whenever you see, hear or read anything that goes against the prevailing ‘weather’ that the Tories and the media are trying to create to cover their desperate ploy.