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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The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.