In Goethe’s Faust, the devil makes a wager with the hero. I will do everything you want, the devil says. But if you ever say that you wish that a moment could last forever, you will die. Faust signs the deal, and seals his fate.
David Cameron, so far as we know, has not made a pact with the devil. But for the past two weeks, the Tory party has certainly been savouring its moment. And with good reason. It doesn’t get much better than this for a re-elected prime minister and his victorious party. But the moment will not last forever.
In fact, it may have ended this morning. That may seems a bit severe and premature, but a cloud nevertheless passed over the Tory sun with thepublication of the 2014 immigration figures. Cameron and one of his would-be successors, Theresa May, had staked their reputations on getting net migration down to less than 100,000 a year by 2015. Instead, yesterday’s figures showed a 50% increase to 318,000. It was a sharp reminder of fallibility.
As he puts the finishing touches to his Queen’s Speech this weekend, Cameron is very much the man of the hour, just as he has been ever since winning his majority on May 7. But the immigration figures were a reminder to him and to us all. Business as usual is about to resume, and things will come along to knock the government off its stride.
Cameron will take yesterday’s punch and remain standing. Yet immigration is a big issue with a big impact, economically, socially and politically. The Cameron government, in common with others across the western world, is struggling to crack it. If the economy stalls, migration will mean trouble.
Unattainable pledges make backbenchers fractious. And Ukip, even amid its current confusion, is ready to grab the issue if it can. Yet Cameron and May have responded by taking the gambler’s course, raising the stakes in the shape of fresh commitments on numbers and a bill making “illegal working” a criminal offence. May, even more than Cameron, has a lot riding on these pledges. They will matter when the contest to succeed begins.
This week the Institute for Government think-tank hosted an uncommonly interesting session on the prospects for the newly elected government. The boffins at the institute had hastily canned their plans for authoritative seminars on hung parliaments and coalitions. Instead we seamlessly now gathered to debate how to govern with a small majority.It was a good opportunity to stop thinking about opposition party leadership elections and focus on what is always the more important story – government. And the very first piece of advice, given by the veteran Labour whip Ann Taylor, was echoed by all the speakers: to expect the unexpected.
Bad migration figures could be one example of that. But there are others. Don’t believe the assumptions that a majority of 12 is unassailable, or even that it will survive for five years, said Taylor. Things get blown off-course. The institute’s Peter Riddell echoed the point. Re-elected governments – and yes, technically this isn’t one even though it feels as if it is – always have a danger of hubris. They think they can defy gravity and get away with things. But the rules is the rules.
What might be the kind of issue that would make an apparently strong government like Cameron’s suddenly appear weak? This is, after all, exactly what happened to John Major in 1992. Major’s Tories won a majority of 21 in April of that year. But after the markets drove the pound out of the European exchange rate mechanism – a precursor of the eurozone – in September, the government’s majority never recovered. By December 1996, Major’s majority had gone, eaten away by byelection defeats and defections. Cameron was there at the time, in the Treasury, so he knows.
The former cabinet secretary Gus O’Donnell had little doubt about the answer. Messing up the referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU would be the obvious trigger. Lose the referendum and everything falls apart, said O’Donnell. The prime minister’s authority would have gone, and probably George Osborne’s, too. There would be a political realignment, probably with the Tory party splitting into separate groups, though Labour may not profit from that. And anyway the Europe issue would not go away – whatever the referendum result.
This will be a parliament of two halves: before the EU referendum and after it. Everything in British politics now hinges on the European issue, including the union with Scotland. But Europe’s hour has now arrived. Europe will be the centrepiece of the speech from the throne on Wednesday. The referendum bill will be published within hours. Cameron and his negotiators are in Riga talking to EU leaders this week. Germany is signalling cooperation within bounds. And all the signs are that the government wants the referendum early, possibly as soon as September 2016 – which is only 16 months away. All other legislative and political business, with the exception of the Scottish devolution plans, will be fitted around the needs of the referendum.
No part of this is easy. That certainly does not mean that it is doomed to fail. Indeed the referendum bill is likely to go through parliament more smoothly than many assume, particularly now there is no hung parliament. Labour will clearly support – or at the very least not oppose – the bill; even in its current navel-gazing mode it recognises that the issue must be settled. And with Labour onside, the chances of wrecking amendments in the Lords are much slimmer. The Lords will play a much more significant role on the Human Rights Act and the union than on the EU referendum.
The big phases of this massively important political adventure are the negotiations with Europe and the campaign itself. It looks increasingly as if Cameron will have a coalition of support that goes well beyond his party on both. His problems will be his own party and the right-wing press, to which he will have to be both attentive and bold, while at the same time learning to play the SNP more skilfully.
In the past, Cameron has been inattentive to his backbenchers and clunky on Scotland. He has suffered for both. He cannot afford to repeat those mistakes this time. Westminster and Whitehall are full of apprehension about the SNP’s tactics in the new parliament. But there is talk this week, both inside government and out, about inviting the SNP’s foreign affairs spokesman Alex Salmond to play a role in some of the renegotiations. That would be a bold move indeed. Some might even call it a Faustian pact.