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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.