Will Cameron's deal with Merkel placate his party's sceptics?

German agreement to relax the working time directive is a real concession but maybe Tory backbencher

An outline is emerging of a deal between David Cameron and Angela Merkel over plans to revise the treaties that underpin the European Union.

It appears that over lunch at the end of last week, two leaders discussed the possibility of Britain refraining from serious obstruction to German plans for new rules governing how euro member countries manage their budgets. In exchange, Germany would not object to Britain seeking relaxation of the working time directive - the EU-wide regulations designed to limit the number of hours per week employees work and protect entitlements such as paid leave.

Leaving aside the question of whether Britain would really be better off or happier with a more dilute version of the directive (the UK already has the right to opt out of aspects of it) and looking purely in terms of what is diplomatically feasible for the UK, this seems like a decent compromise. Britain is not a euro member country and already has a reputation for surly reluctance when it comes to the "European project". The way the European debate has unfolded in Westminster in recent weeks has left our continental partners in no doubt that we do not see ourselves as integral players in the EU game. We want concessions on "repatriation of power" - largely so that the prime minister can show symbolic trophies to an implacably euro-phobic wing of his party - and must threaten to be obstructive in order to get them.

For countries that are in the euro and for whom the debate about fiscal integration and more rigorous rules of enforcement is existential, Britain's implicit threat to hold the process hostage must be classified somewhere on a spectrum between absurd and vindictive. David Cameron surely understands this (no doubt Merkel made it clear). He cannot veto a new EU treaty incorporating new eurozone rules without very seriously damaging Britain's diplomatic relations on the continent. What he needs is some kind of concession that is big enough to look like a loosening of ties with Brussels so that, when a revised treaty is agreed by the European Council, Tory backbenchers don't go berserk and demand a referendum on it.

The Working Time Directive is a good candidate. The Tories have always hated European influence on labour protection. Conveniently, the Lib Dems are also hostile to this particular bit of European regulation, so there is no risk of coalition tension. Merkel can be relaxed about it since it is marginal to her concerns and has no immediate bearing on budget discipline in the euro zone.

So the big question is whether it would be enough to persuade Tory backbenchers that Cameron is honouring his pledge to use treaty negotiations as the vehicle for repatriation of powers. If they sneer at this deal and insist that the Prime Minister go back for more, it would suggest that compromise is not really on their agenda at all and what they are really after is a kind of show-down that would make Britain's participation in EU structures as currently configured impossible.

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

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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

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