Cameron's EU veto: "conspiracy or cock up?"

The PM is confident because his stance is popular. But some MPs are querying whether the whole thing

The House of Commons was on predictably raucous form for the Prime Minister's statement on last week's European summit. It isn't always a forum in which the best arguments win. Often they are trumped by the most bravura performance, the readiest wit or the exuberance of the backbenches.

On this occasion, the seriousness of the issue just about managed to cut through the roiling theatrics. Cameron pitched his statement soberly, clearly mindful of being seen to revel in the anti-Brussels triumphalism that was bubbling away behind him. He didn't need to worry about sparing Nick Clegg's blushes though. The Deputy Prime Minister wasn't there. Cameron's message was simple enough: the deal on offer wasn't good for Britain, so he didn't sign.

That claim was dismantled by Ed Miliband. Nothing had been vetoed that cannot proceed anyway, no safeguards were secured and all that was achieved was Britain's marginalisation. It wasn't a barnstorming performance, but it had the solid virtue of describing the truth.

The message was reinforced by needle-sharp questions from two former foreign secretaries, David Miliband and Jack Straw, probing the Prime Minister on the detail of what exactly it is that was under threat before last Thursday, and how exactly the threat has now been averted. Cameron couldn't answer.

Outside parliament, though, It doesn't really matter much. The Prime Minister's strongest line was also his most predictable one: would Miliband have signed or not? "You can't lead if you can't decide". It was a neat barb, crafted to reinforce No. 10's central strategic line of attack against the Labour leader -- that he is not a credible alternative PM.

Ultimately, Cameron is confident because his stance is popular. He is casting himself as the PM who finally said "no" to Brussels and, according to opinion polls, it is working.

That domestic political advantage (which has the added benefit of averting a rebellion on his backbenches and diminishing the threat of a Ukip upset in next week's Feltham by-election) has led a number of Labour MPs to query whether Cameron might have planned the whole thing. The theory doing the rounds is that he deliberately tabled impossible demands in Brussels to engineer a veto.

Just before the statement, I spoke to one shadow minister who put the question pretty bluntly. "Is it conspiracy or is it cock up?"

If it is the former, the Lib Dems will have been most royally stitched-up. Perhaps suspicion along those lines is what kept Clegg out of the chamber.

 

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The promises of Brexit can't be kept. You can only decide which bits to betray

Vote Leave's great success was in presenting a menu of contradictory options as if they could all be secured. 

If Britain leaves the European Union but retains its membership of the single market and the customs union, has it really left? Barry Gardiner doesn’t think so. Labour’s shadow trade secretary, writing for the Guardian, argues that to satisfy those who voted Leave, Britain must regain control of its own borders – forcing it out of the single market in order to lose free movement rights – and its own laws, forcing it out of both the customs union and single market to avoid regulatory harmonisation.

Jeremy Corbyn has argued that single market membership and EU membership are one and the same, as has Caroline Flint. They have kept the options open on the customs union. Are they right?

As I wrote yesterday, it’s hard to explain what drove Britain’s Brexit vote without conceding that objections to the rules of the single market played a significant role. Gardiner is undoubtedly right to say that two of the biggest drivers of the vote were control over borders and laws, both of which cannot be achieved while remaining within the single market. Neither can the third biggest driver, which was more money for public services in general and the NHS in particular – that £350m a week. Because if the United Kingdom retains its single market membership, it will continue to “send money to Brussels”.

There’s a “but” coming, though, and it’s a big one. The first problem is that while the majority of people who voted to leave did so for reasons that cannot be fulfilled if we remain in the single market, those votes weren’t enough to take Britain out of the European Union. Leave only triumphed because it also secured the votes of people who thought it would take the country out of the political project but would retain a Norway-style arrangement.

The second is that those three big mandates cannot be reconciled with each other. If the United Kingdom leaves the single market and the customs union, then the promise of more money for the NHS will be difficult, perhaps impossible, to deliver, at least not in the way that people envisaged. (When people said they wanted £350m extra in the NHS, they didn’t mean “in order to pay for drugs that are more expensive, to recoup the cost of our new regulatory regime and to plug the recruitment gap left by EU citizens with high-priced locums”. They meant that the NHS would do everything it does now and more, not run to stand still.)

The great success of Vote Leave was in presenting a whole menu of contradictory options as if they could be served on one dish. But you cannot have the Extra Hot and the Lemon & Herb on the same piece of chicken. You have to choose. The big failure of the political class has been not to advocate for one of those options over the other. (Theresa May has effectively been running on a ticket of “Extra Hot, Lemon & Herb, and the French will pay for it”.)

You cannot have a Brexit that unlocks trade deals with India and the rest of the BRICS (five major emerging national economies) and reduce the uncontrolled flow of people from elsewhere around the world to the UK. You can’t have a more generously-funded public realm and pursue a Brexit that makes everyone poorer. You have to choose. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.