Cameron goes to the crease with a bat broken by his own party

The real division in the Tory ranks is between those who know how impractical confrontation in Bruss

As is customary before European summit meetings, political leaders from the European People's Party group in the European parliament met yesterday. This, remember, is the collective from which David Cameron withdrew the Tories in 2009, honouring a pledge he had made in order to win eurosceptic backing for his leadership bid in 2005. It seemed like a small price to pay then. Awkwardly, it now means the British prime minister is absent from an occasion that will include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Herman van Rompuy, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and a brace of other EU leaders.

I've written before about how the decision to pull out of the EPP has caused more trouble for Cameron than he anticipated. What is interesting now is how little credit the Tory leader gets for it among the very MPs it was meant to appease. The eurosceptics bank concessions and then move on to demand more.

The same is true of the European Union Act that was pushed through parliament earlier this year, supposedly putting a "referendum lock" on any future EU deals that might involve a transfer of sovereignty to Brussels. This was meant to be compensation to the Tory party for Cameron's reneging on a pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He was terribly sorry that the treaty had been ratified, but could not unpick it and would make sure no such treaty was ever passed again.

Of course, when he formulated that position he didn't anticipate a round of treaty negotiations this parliament. Everyone thought that Lisbon marked the end of institutional reform for a generation. The Act was carefully worded so that ministers get to say what constitutes a transfer of sovereignty and so retain substantial control over whether or not there should be a referendum. Backbench sceptics weren't terribly impressed by that and, not surprisingly, many seem prepared to ignore the letter of the new law. Their view, apparently shared by Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Patterson, is that anything that emerges from the current summit is likely to amount to a new constitutional settlement between the UK and Brussels and so will eventually have to be put to the country in a referendum.

But the idea of Cameron asking the eurozone countries to put their rescue plans on hold while he holds a plebiscite is, frankly, absurd. In theory, Cameron could sign a treaty and ask parliament to ratify it and secure rebel Tory votes with a promise of a referendum later, but it would have to be an in/out vote.

The essential problem is that the sceptics want action that will signal clear and prompt disengagement from the EU, and any action of that kind ends up harming the UK's diplomatic position and negotiating clout. It is easy to promise "repatriation" and even a referendum in opposition, but in government the sheer impracticality becomes clear. Even some very eurosceptic Tories, such as William Hague, have found that ministerial office dulls their appetite for confrontation. They need to get things done with their counterparts in other countries. The hardline sceptics see this as going native or being "captured" by Brussels.

As I wrote in my column this week, frothy Tory euroscepticism makes it ever harder for ministers to build the kinds of alliances they need to promote UK interests in Europe. Countries that might support the British position - sceptical of institutional centralisation, seeking liberalising reform of the single market - need reassurance that we are serious about making the whole project work and not hovering by the exit or, worse, trying to sabotage the whole thing.

The painful reality that David Cameron must confront is that a number of his MPs are pursuing a strategy that pays no heed to the practical demands of running a government in the midst of a serious international economic crisis. To borrow Geoffrey Howe's famous metaphor, the UK prime minister is going out to the Brussels crease with a bat broken by his own backbenchers.

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

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses