Who does David Cameron fear more, the Lib Dems or Ukip?

The PM is using coalition as an excuse not to be more bellicose in Brussels. It could backfire

Nick Clegg has sprinkled adose of salt into the prime minister's European wounds this morning. The deputy prime minister has written an article in the Observer insisting that the coalition will be "measured" in its approach to any proposed changes to Brussels institutions and warns that "retreating to the margins" of Europe would be "economic suicide".

David Cameron, meanwhile, has told the BBC's Andrew Marr that he would like to see further "rebalancing" of powers with regard to Brussels, but recognises that the Conservatives must act as a coalition - an unveiled hint that it is only the Lib Dems that stop him from giving full rein to his own more Eurosceptic impulses. It is obvious why he would want to present that argument - persuading Tory back benchers that his hands are tied with yellow Lib Dem cord. I'm not sure it will do him much good. The Conservative hard core anti-EU faction know perfectly well that the Lib Dems are an impediment to their ambitions and see Cameron's deference tothem as weakness. Hearing the prime minister advertise that problem will hardly placate them.

Part of Cameron's problem here is that he is trapped in an inherently dishonest position. He probably would like the UK one day to have a different relationship with Brussels, but recognises it is impractical - politically and diplomatically - to demand one now. He would almost certainly have come to the same conclusion if he had a majority in parliament. There are, in government, simply better things to be getting on with, especially in an economic crisis. So Cameron will not march into the European Council swinging a Thatcheresque man-bag demanding more control of employment rights legislation or anything else - and not because the LibDems won't allow it, but because it is not a priority for him. The back benchers know it, so there is very little the PM can say that will satisfy them.

One factor that could really change the dynamic is the performance of Ukip - or rather, Nigel Farage's party's anticipated performance in 2014 European elections. Ukip has already beaten the Lib Dems in a couple of by-elections and is a natural repository for disgruntled Tory protest votes. One poll out today puts Ukip within easy striking distance of the Lib Dems nationally. Conservative strategists are, apparently, very worried about what that might mean for a poll that is due just a year before the next general election. It is feasible to imagine that, come 2014, Cameron will be more afraid of Farage's populist, nationalist agitation beyond the gates of his coalition than Clegg's cosmopolitan Europhile hand-wringing within.

 

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn bids for the NHS to rescue Labour

Ahead of tomorrow's by-elections, Corbyn damned Theresa May for putting the service in a "state of emergency".

Whenever Labour leaders are in trouble, they seek political refuge in the NHS. Jeremy Corbyn, whose party faces potential defeat in tomorrow’s Copeland and Stoke by-elections, upheld this iron law today. In the case of the former, Labour has already warned that “babies will die” as a result of the downgrading of the hospital. It is crude but it may yet prove effective (it worked for No to AV, after all).

In the chamber, Corbyn assailed May for cutting the number of hospital beds, worsening waiting times, under-funding social care and abolishing nursing bursaries. The Labour leader rose to a crescendo, damning the Prime Minister for putting the service in a “a state of emergency”. But his scattergun attack was too unfocused to much trouble May.

The Prime Minister came armed with attack lines, brandishing a quote from former health secretary Andy Burnham on cutting hospital beds and reminding Corbyn that Labour promised to spend less on the NHS at the last election (only Nixon can go to China). May was able to boast that the Tories were providing “more money” for the service (this is not, of course, the same as “enough”). Just as Corbyn echoed his predecessors, so the Prime Minister sounded like David Cameron circa 2013, declaring that she would not “take lessons” from the party that presided over the Mid-Staffs scandal and warning that Labour would “borrow and bankrupt” the economy.

It was a dubious charge from the party that has racked up ever-higher debt but a reliably potent one. Labour, however, will be satisfied that May was more comfortable debating the economy or attacking the Brown government, than she was defending the state of the NHS. In Copeland and Stoke, where Corbyn’s party has held power since 1935 and 1950, Labour must hope that the electorate are as respectful of tradition as its leader.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.