Cameron finally has a coherent Europe policy - but does his party want to listen?

The PM is inching towards a sceptical but engaged role in Europe. But his MPs won't be bought off.

After the umpteen crisis summits that have dominated Brussels-night life, last week's meeting of EU leaders was one of the dullest in recent memory. With the clock well past 3am, bleary-eyed leaders stumbled along to brief the no-less bleary-eyed Brussels press corps that, after ten hours of painstaking negotiating, a couple of words in the summit conclusions had been changed.

Three months after agreeing to create a single supervisor for the eurozone by the end of 2012, EU leaders confirmed that they had actually meant it and that the legal framework would be in place by the end of 2012.

But while leaders lined up to put their own national spin on the banking union agreement, David Cameron's Friday morning press briefing was significant, not just because of what he said, but also the way he said it.  In the course of a 20 minute briefing Cameron referred to "a new settlement" for both the eurozone and Britain about five times. Every time he spoke of the necessity of a banking union and deeper integration for the eurozone in the next breath he added that Britain would not be involved in any of it.

As a statement of fact, it is hard to disagree with him. Deeper integration of the eurozone will change Britain's relationship with the EU. Whether it is bank supervision by the ECB, a specific budget for the eurozone or a single Treasury for the single currency, all have as profound implications for the 10 countries outside the eurozone as for the eurozone-17. All, particularly Denmark and Sweden, the two other countries where euro-membership is squarely off the political agenda, will have big decisions to make, but a multi-speed Europe will surely become even clearer than it already is.

The first question is whether Cameron genuinely wants Britain to have second division membership and, if so, whether other countries will let him. Although Michael Gove and Iain Duncan-Smith lead the 'get-outer' faction in his cabinet, it seems clear that Cameron does not want Britain to leave the EU. In fact, he was at pains to repeat his commitment to Britain's EU membership, particularly to the single market, and to the country's 'euro-realism' on foreign policy.

The Cameron-doctrine on Europe seems to boil down to the following: pro-single market and in favour of ad hoc co-operation on foreign policy and blanket opposition to everything else - from the euro and JHA policy to social policy. However, while there is plenty to criticise from a left or liberal perspective, it is an ideologically coherent and thoroughly Tory approach.

At the same time, however, his government continues to add fuel to the perception that Cameron's EU policy is one of outright hostility. Indeed, after a week in which his government decided to opt out of over 130 legal acts on justice and home affairs policy and senior ministers mooted the possibility of a referendum on the EU within a year of the next election expected in 2015, the remark by Finland's Europe minister, Alex Stubb, that Britain was waving "bye, bye to Europe" is understandable. One of the Tories' main weaknesses on Europe is their lack of any significant allies and it is hard to see how Cameron can secure the opt-outs his party craves if he constantly provokes hostility from other European governments

That is why Cameron should tread carefully at November's specially convened EU budget summit. Angela Merkel has already thrown down the gauntlet, threatening to call off the summit - a veto to pre-empt a veto - if Cameron and William Hague continue to demand big reductions in EU spending. The entire EU budget only represents 1 per cent of GDP and the funds being argued about between countries are pretty small - around 0.1 per cent of GDP. But if it is already hard to see other countries agreeing to more British opt-outs, holding the rest of Europe to ransom over a tiny proportion of the EU budget would be completely counterproductive.

The other question is whether his party is prepared to listen. One of the mistakes Cameron made early on was to think that he could buy off his eurosceptics. Despite pulling his MEP delegation out of the centre-right European People's Party group and putting a "referendum lock" into UK law, many Tory activists are still convinced that their leader is a kool-aid slurping federalist and will accept nothing short of as many 'in/out' referendums as it takes to get the right result.

However, it is not as if either Labour or the Liberal Democrats have a coherent Europe policy around which to take advantage of Cameron's contortions. Since being ousted from power in 2010, Labour has taken a conscious decision not to be a hostage to fortune by laying down detailed policy platforms and Europe is no exception. Senior figures in the party are even considering whether to steal a march on the Tories by promising a referendum on Britain's EU membership in their next manifesto, a high risk strategy for no obvious political gain considering that the party won't convince anyone if it tries to 'out-sceptic' the Conservatives.

As for the Lib Dems, the only way that their pro-EU stance will be a vote-winner is if they use it in 2014 to despatch Nick Clegg to Brussels as Britain's next Commissioner, conveniently a year before facing the wrath of the electorate the following year.

Europe has been one of the most destructive forces in the Conservative party for over twenty years. After wrangling over the ERM and attitudes to European integration contributed to Thatcher's downfall, John Major's government was wrecked by civil war over the Maastricht Treaty and, since then, the Tories have repeatedly failed to articulate a policy position capable of getting grass-roots support and being put into practice. But now eurozone integration seems set to formally create a club within a club. Cameron acknowledges this and is inching towards a sceptical but engaged role in Europe. The question is whether other European leaders, and his party activists, are ready to listen.

Ben Fox is chairman of GMB Brussels and political adviser to the Socialist vice-president of economic and monetary affairs.

David Cameron gives a press conference on the final day of an EU summit in Brussels on 19 October 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.
Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left