This may seem like one for anoraks only, but David Cameron’s decision to honour his leadership election promise to split from the European People’s Party has important implications for politics, both here and on the continent, that deserve wider attention. It leaves the European right fragmented and weakened by ideological division and raises serious questions about the depth and sincerity of Cameron’s shift to the political centre. It also risks leaving the UK more internationally isolated under an incoming Conservative government than at any time since joining the EEC in 1973.
By any normal standard the move is an odd one. Leaving the EPP means forfeiting considerable influence as the second largest party in the European Parliament’s largest political group in exchange for a very uncertain future. The best case scenario is that the Conservatives will find enough allies to form a group of around fifty MEPs, putting them on a par with the communists and the greens on Strasbourg’s fringe. But even this may prove tricky. To pass the required threshold, a political group must have member parties in at least seven different member states. At the moment the Conservatives can only rely on the Czech ODS. Unless they can find MEPs from five other EU countries to join them, the Conservatives will have to choose one of the following: to fade into groupless obscurity, to join a group that includes neo-fascists or to crawl back to the EPP with their tails between their legs. Cameron’s move is a gamble that could yet end in humiliation
Even success would be a doubtful blessing. The parties most likely to join such a grouping are a motley collection of populists, nationalists and social authoritarians: not the sort of friends a leader trying to project a modern and tolerant image should want to be seen with in public. There is certainly nothing compassionate about the conservatism of Poland’s stridently homophobic Law and Justice Party, for example. Nor is tolerance a strong point for the xenophobic Danish People’s Party or Italy’s Northern League, whose leader once referred to Africans as “bingo-bongos”. Allies like these would put Cameron only a goose step or two away from the extreme right.
The split from the EPP only makes sense from the standpoint of doctrinaire anti-Europeanism and therefore sends an important signal about where the Conservative Party really is that puts Cameron’s careful positioning and progressive tone into fresh perspective. Since the time of Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech, Conservative resistance to European integration has been an extension of its opposition to the welfare capitalist approach favoured in most of continental Europe. Cameron’s unwillingness to reconcile his party to the tradition of European Christian democracy, with its support for the social market economy, suggests that his desire to distance himself form Thatcherism is more a matter of electoral calculation than honest conversion.
The alternative explanation is that Cameron felt unable to withstand pressure from his own party to sever ties to the European centre-right, in which case this deserves to be seen as his “clause four moment” in reverse. Instead of challenging his party to accept modernisation and change, he chose to pander to the narrow concerns of its activist base. Whether Cameron is unreconstructed or merely weak, there is opportunity in this for Labour, if only it could forget its own troubles long enough to train its sights on the opposition.
David Clark was a special adviser to Robin Cook