Britain's most important relationship is now with Germany

David Cameron should have paid more attention to European diplomacy and been nicer to Angela Merkel

I mentioned in my column this week that Nick Clegg had been despatched to Brussels to work his polyglot, Euro-expert "Heineken" act - reaching the diplomatic parts other ministers cannot reach. An important part of that process, I gather, is trying to steer the UK's EU partners away from radical treaty change in response to the single currency crisis.

As I've written before, the ultimate demand the markets seem to be making of the eurozone is that Germany stand behind the troubled southern states be deed more than word. That certainly means tougher rules inside the eurozone; it probably also means institutional harmonisation - the "remorseless logic" of deeper fiscal integration that George Osborne has talked about.

But if that turns into a massive EU treaty re-negotiation (or even a less than massive one), Conservative Eurosceptics would demand that David Cameron threaten to wield a veto and demand "repatriation of powers" in return, and possibly a full renegotiation of Britain's EU status. Any new EU treaty would also be subject to powerful demands for a referendum - and not just in the UK. It could trigger a process that might unravel the Union. Not surprisingly, Clegg doesn't like the sound of this. He is a genuine pro-European and he also knows that a treaty renegotiation would put an intolerable strain on coalition relations. There was a passage in his speech on Wednesday that got less attention than it deserved, I thought:

I fully support the goal of better oversight, but I also feel that it is right to caution against returning to the EU's founding texts without first seeing if we can meet these objectives through other means. Our priorities are stability and growth - and they are urgent. To sit around tables for months on end, agonising over this article or that one, becoming engulfed in endless institutional introspection, would be a huge political distraction from the economic task at hand. The danger is that fixating on the treaties will obscure what is really needed. Treaty change should not be a surrogate for political will.

That is the public version. In private I'm fairly sure Clegg will be more explicit with his continental partners about the dangers that a new treaty would pose in terms of stoking up destructive Europhobia back home.

The key relationship here is with Germany. It is the Germans who will want to see the euro made stable with serious rules-based institutional reform as the quid pro quo for putting their domestic finances on the line and for allowing the ECB to betray (as Berlin sees it) the sound money traditions of the old Bundesbank, printing money for a bail out. One official I spoke to says the German cabinet is talking about "pretty ambitious" treaty changes. But a source close to the Deputy Prime Minister says they can be persuaded otherwise.

Either way, Britain's future relationship with the European Union more than ever now relies on the effectiveness of our diplomatic relations with Germany.

A final thought: Knowing all this, I wonder if David Cameron ever regrets pulling the Conservative party out of the European People's Party grouping in the European Parliament. It was a gesture to appease his party's sceptics and a commitment he made in order to be elected Tory leader. He must have thought at the time it was a free hit. (He wasn't then much interested in Europe, thinking the whole issue was toxic and best avoided.)

But Angela Merkel was very angry at the move - her CDU party is in the EPP and she felt snubbed by the Tories' formation of a different group with some decidedly marginal, smaller and more nationalistic European parties. It took quite a lot of effort to persuade the German Chancellor that Cameron was a mature European politician who understood how the EU actually worked. Diplomats and ministers will privately admit that the decision to quit the EPP cost the Tories - and by extension the UK - influence in Europe. There was, for example, a dinner for senior EPP figures on the eve of the last emergency European Council summit. On the guest list: Jose Manuel Barosso, Angela Merkel, Nicholas Sarkozy, Herman van Rompuy ... and no one from Britain.

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

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Is there such a thing as responsible betting?

Punters are encouraged to bet responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly.

I try not to watch the commercials between matches, or the studio discussions, or anything really, before or after, except for the match itself. And yet there is one person I never manage to escape properly – Ray Winstone. His cracked face, his mesmerising voice, his endlessly repeated spiel follow me across the room as I escape for the lav, the kitchen, the drinks cupboard.

I’m not sure which betting company he is shouting about, there are just so many of them, offering incredible odds and supposedly free bets. In the past six years, since the laws changed, TV betting adverts have increased by 600 per cent, all offering amazingly simple ways to lose money with just one tap on a smartphone.

The one I hate is the ad for BetVictor. The man who has been fronting it, appearing at windows or on roofs, who I assume is Victor, is just so slimy and horrible.

Betting firms are the ultimate football parasites, second in wealth only to kit manufacturers. They have perfected the capitalist’s art of using OPM (Other People’s Money). They’re not directly involved in football – say, in training or managing – yet they make millions off the back of its popularity. Many of the firms are based offshore in Gibraltar.

Football betting is not new. In the Fifties, my job every week at five o’clock was to sit beside my father’s bed, where he lay paralysed with MS, and write down the football results as they were read out on Sports Report. I had not to breathe, make silly remarks or guess the score. By the inflection in the announcer’s voice you could tell if it was an away win.

Earlier in the week I had filled in his Treble Chance on the Littlewoods pools. The “treble” part was because you had three chances: three points if the game you picked was a score draw, two for a goalless draw and one point for a home or away win. You chose eight games and had to reach 24 points, or as near as possible, then you were in the money.

“Not a damn sausage,” my father would say every week, once I’d marked and handed him back his predictions. He never did win a sausage.

Football pools began in the 1920s, the main ones being Littlewoods and Vernons, both based in Liverpool. They gave employment to thousands of bright young women who checked the results and sang in company choirs in their spare time. Each firm spent millions on advertising. In 1935, Littlewoods flew an aeroplane over London with a banner saying: Littlewoods Above All!

Postwar, they blossomed again, taking in £50m a year. The nation stopped at five on a Saturday to hear the scores, whether they were interested in football or not, hoping to get rich. BBC Sports Report began in 1948 with John Webster reading the results. James Alexander Gordon took over in 1974 – a voice soon familiar throughout the land.

These past few decades, football pools have been left behind, old-fashioned, low-tech, replaced by online betting using smartphones. The betting industry has totally rebooted itself. You can bet while the match is still on, trying to predict who will get the next goal, the next corner, the next throw-in. I made the last one up, but in theory you can bet instantly, on anything, at any time.

The soft sell is interesting. With the old football pools, we knew it was a remote flutter, hoping to make some money. Today the ads imply that betting on football somehow enhances the experience, adds to the enjoyment, involves you in the game itself, hence they show lads all together, drinking and laughing and putting on bets.

At the same time, punters are encouraged to do it responsibly. What a laugh that is. It’s like encouraging drunks to get drunk responsibly, to crash our cars responsibly, murder each other responsibly. Responsibly and respect are now two of the most meaningless words in the football language. People have been gambling, in some form, since the beginning, watching two raindrops drip down inside the cave, lying around in Roman bathhouses playing games. All they’ve done is to change the technology. You have to respect that.

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war