Continental drift

Cameron plays to the eurosceptic gallery, but where does this leave the coalition?

There's only one story in the Sunday papers this morning: Nick Clegg's"fury" (the Observer) at David Cameron's refusal on Friday to sign up to a revision to the Lisbon treaty. For the first 19 months of its existence, the coalition has managed to choreograph the tensions between its constituent parts reasonably effectively, helped, it has to be said, by the Lib Dem leader's emollience. As Marina Hyde put it in the Guardian yesterday, Clegg's instruction to his party in government appears to have been to "take bucketloads of crap and wield none of the power". But not any more, if newspaper reports are to be believed.

According to the Observer's source: "[Clegg] could not believe that Cameron hadn't tried to play for more time. A menu of choices wasn't deployed as a negotiating tool but instead was presented as a take it or leave it ultimatum. That is not how he would have played Britain's hand." Clegg is said to fear that Cameron's flounce in Brussels on Friday will leave Britain the "lonely man of Europe". This is a view echoed by one of his predecessors as leader of the Lib Dems, Paddy Ashdown. In a piece for the Observer that runs beneath the headline "We have tipped 38 years of foreign policy down the drain", Ashdown argues that Cameron succeeded merely in "isolat[ing] [Britain] from Europe and diminish[ing] ourselves in Washington":

[W]e have used the veto - but stopped nothing. In order to "protect the City" we have made it more vulnerable. At a time of economic crisis, we have made it more attractive for investors to go to northern Europe. We have tipped 38 years of British foreign policy down the drain in one night. We have handed the referendum agenda over to the Eurosceptics. We have strengthened the arguments of those who would break the union.

These latter, Ashdown argues, include not only the 81 eurosceptic Tory MPs who are now effectively "running" the prime minister, but also Alex Salmond, for whom the fiasco on Friday represents an "unconvenanted gift": "If England is to be out of Europe, why should Scotland not be in?"

What of Labour? Shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander gave a rather assured performance on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show this morning, arguing that the upshot for Britain of the negotiations in Brussels last week were "economically inadequate and politically disastrous". There was a deal to be made, Alexander insisted, but Cameron never wanted to make it: "This was about the politics of the Conservative Party." That's true, but Labour oughtn't to derive too much comfort from their opponent's misfortune. Andrew Marr asked, reasonably enough, what deal Britain might have made. Here Alexander was evasive, content simply to point out that there are no "legal protections" for the City of London in place today that weren't in place on Thursday.

Much the most interesting part of the interview concerned Alexander's view of the deal that was cooked up by the other European leaders, with Germany and France in the vanguard. As Owen Jones pointed out in a blog here on Friday, "François Hollande - the Socialist candidate for the French presidency - has already spoken out against a treaty cooked up by Europe's overwhelmingly right-of-centre governments," one that effectively outlaws Keynesianism. Hollande has argued that deficit reduction in Europe is a necessary but not sufficient condition of economic recovery: "Without growth, budgetary readjustment on its own will not achieve the desired results." Alexander, for his part, wondered how the "austerity package" agreed on Friday, which will work for Germany, will work for Italy or Greece. It's a good question, and one that Labour, together with its social-democratic partners in Europe, ought to pressing in the coming months.

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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