David Cameron’s big EU speech setting out the policy of an in/out referendum on EU membership after the next election contained a key claim: that a Britain more detached from the EU would be both more business friendly and closer to the people than those statist bureaucrats way off in Brussels. As if on cue, Switzerland came forward this weekend with a test case of what popularly-rooted policies on business conduct in a non-EU European country with a large financial sector might look like: a strong impulse to curb executive pay and bonuses, by all accounts driven by resentment at large bailouts given to — or at least brokered with some urgency for — the banking sector since 2008. Now you could say that this is not really representative of the UK, since it’s driven by the referendum system. Yet accountability was one of the rationales cited in Cameron’s speech for his policy and indeed for his decision to have a referendum. Five years from now.
Of course, the Eastleigh by-election result shows that insulation from populism doesn’t come that easily. And as Martin Wolf points out, it leaves the rest of the EU with one clear entry point to make life difficult for the Tories, by coming forward with policies like those on bankers’ bonuses that are actually popular. At the very least, it seems that the Tories will have to work to make “business” mean something other than “bankers” over the next few years, before they lose the filter of infrequent parliamentary elections between policies and the people.