Either Britain will bail out the euro, or it won't. There's no middle way

David Cameron wants to fudge the issue with a technical argument about the IMF. It won't work.

Domestic debate around the euro crisis has taken yet another awkward turn for the prime minister. An essential aspect of the government's political strategy is to draw a clear distinctions between, on one side, a failing single currency project, ill-starred from the outset, and, on the other side, a wise Britain that chose to remain free to set its own interest rates and is blessed with a flexible exchange rate.

By extension, UK taxpayers should not be expected to contribute to a eurozone rescue fund. Greece's solvency woes are not, according to that argument, our problem. Except, of course, plainly they are, for at least two reasons. First, crisis in the eurozone is continuing to depress confidence and demand in the global economy, which is the main reason why growth is so sluggish in the UK. Second, if the Greek crisis is not contained, it will spread to larger European economies - Italy is next in the firing line - and a solvency crisis there would drag down those banks, including those in the UK, that hold European sovereign debt. A prolonged eurozone crisis will eventually become another banking crisis.

So it is in the UK's interests that a bailout works and if UK capital - whether administered through the IMF or bilaterally - is required for that outcome, well, then that surely is the national interest too. Downing Street is trying to delineate different kinds of contributions, attributing different moral weights depending on how "European" they look. If I understand it right, the ethical judgement maps out roughly as follows: If the IMF helps a struggling nation directly, that is a "good" bailout - and so UK taxpayer's money can be used. Britain might increase its IMF contributions on that basis. If the IMF joins forces with the ECB and eurozone governments to create a collective mechanism to support the euro that is a "bad" bailout - the UK would not increase its contributions on such a basis.

The obvious question is how the government plans to enforce the distinction before agreeing to pay more. The UK is already wading into deep diplomatic water by hinting it would hold any proposed EU treaty changes hostage, demanding repatriation of powers in exchange for cooperation. Now is it hinting it will withhold support for the IMF unless it gets guarantees that the Fund will not ally itself too closely with any European political project to save the euro?

Meanwhile, UK government policy - confirmed by Mark Hoban, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, in an emergency parliamentary debate today - is to impress on eurozone governments the "remorseless logic" of further fiscal integration.

So, just to be clear: The government (or at least its Conservative side) think it is a terrible idea for sovereign nations to bind themselves into a single currency and yet supports the urgent acceleration of that process. It rejects the contribution of British taxpayers' money to a bailout that might explicitly support a euro stabilisation process but would be happy to contribute to one that helped eurozone countries independently, thereby supporting euro stabilisation indirectly. This is not a sustainable position.

The ultimate problem for David Cameron remains the same as it has been for weeks. He has to choose between being a European statesman akin to his peers in Cannes and being an authentic Tory sceptic. Either he thinks the euro must succeed and that Britain, as a major EU player, must play a constructive role in working out a technical solution to the crisis. Or he thinks that Britain should step back from the whole disaster and, out of parsimony or moral horror at the idea of a Euro superstate, keep Treasury money away from the entire business. Or, to put it bluntly, either he is signing us up to a bailout or he isn't. He can try laundering the argument through technical IMF questions for a while. (And Labour seem for the time being to play along with the distinction.) But it won't work for long and it will be exposed by the sceptics as dishonest as soon as any debate on UK contributions comes to parliament.

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

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.