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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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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