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

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.