Cameron's EU speech set to clash with Obama's inauguration

Speech now scheduled for Monday would coincide with the US president's public swearing-in ceremony.

David Cameron's apparently jinxed speech on the EU will now be delivered on Monday. That's according to today's FT, which reports that as Downing Street advisers gathered to discuss the Algerian crisis and reschedule the speech, "Cameron made it clear he wanted to give it on Monday".

Whether or not the Prime Minister gets his way largely depends on the outcome of the hostage standoff, with no guarantee that all British citizens will be accounted for by the end of the weekend. But has Number 10 considered another potential obstacle? Monday 21 January is also the date of Barack Obama's second inauguration. Since 20 January - presidential Inauguration Day - is a Sunday, only a private ceremony will be held with the public ceremony, as is traditional in such circumstances, pushed back to the following day. It will be the seventh time in US history that the constitutionally mandated inauguration date has fallen on a Sunday, with Ronald Reagan the last president to be inaugurated on a Monday in 1985.

Given the attention that will be on Obama and the US administration's publicly expressed scepticism of Cameron's EU strategy, Downing Street would be advised to postpone the speech again. According to a White House readout, Obama told Cameron on Thursday that "the United States values a strong UK in a strong European Union, which makes critical contributions to peace, prosperity, and security in Europe and around the world." The US, which has long sought to support European integration (recall Henry Kissinger's question, "Who do I call when I want to speak to Europe?"), has been troubled by speculation that the UK could withdraw from the EU at some point in the next five years. Earlier this month, Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary for European affairs, warned that "referendums have often turned countries inwards". He added: "every hour at an EU summit spent debating the institutional makeup of the European Union is one less hour spent talking about how we can solve our common challenges of jobs, growth, and international peace around the world."

Number 10 has already been forced to move the speech once to avoid a diplomatic incident. After months of delays, Cameron was due to deliver his address on 22 January but Angela Merkel's office complained that this would clash with celebrations to mark the celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the landmark Élysée Treaty between France and Germany, which cemented the two countries' post-war reconciliation.

Tory MPs were promised an address from Cameron on Europe as long ago as last autumn but when the speech failed to materialise this was changed to "before Christmas". When this deadline too was missed, Cameron ill-advisedly remarked at a press gallery lunch in Westminster: "Thanks for reminding me that my Europe speech remains as yet unmade. This is a tantric approach to policy-making: it’ll be even better when it does eventually come." But Monday would appear the wrong day to deliver.

Barack Obama told David Cameron that the US "values a strong UK in a strong European Union" during a phonecall on Thursday. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Forget the progressive alliance - it was the voters wot won it in Richmond

The Labour candidate on how voters have acted tactically for decades.

The Richmond Park by-election is both a triumph and a setback for the concept of an anti-Tory progressive alliance. As the Labour candidate, I was bombarded with emails and tweets saying I ought to stand down to prevent Zac Goldsmith being re-elected long after it was technically impossible for me to do so even if I had wanted to. I was harangued at a meeting organised by Compass, at which I found myself the lonely voice defending Labour's decision to put up a candidate.

I was slightly taken aback by the anger of some of those proposing the idea, but I did not stand for office expecting an easy ride. I told the meeting that while I liked the concept of a progressive alliance, I did not think that should mean standing down in favour of a completely unknown and inexperienced Lib Dem candidate, who had been selected without any reference to other parties. 

The Greens, relative newbies to the political scene, had less to lose than Labour, which still wants to be a national political party. Consequently, they told people to support the Lib Dems. This all passed off smoothly for a while, but when Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Greens came to Richmond to actively support the Lib Dems, it was more than some of her local party members could stomach. 

They wrote to the Guardian expressing support for my campaign, pointing out that I had a far better, long-established reputation as an environmentalist than the Lib Dem candidate. While clearly that ultimately did little to boost my vote, this episode highlighted one of the key problems about creating a progressive alliance. Keeping the various wings of the Labour party together, especially given the undisciplined approach of the leader who, as a backbencher, voted 428 times during the 13 years of Labour government in the 1990s and 2000s, is hard enough. Then consider trying to unite the left of the Greens with the right of the Lib Dems. That is not to include various others in this rainbow coalition such as nationalists and ultra-left groups. Herding cats seems easy by contrast.

In the end, however, the irony was that the people decided all by themselves. They left Labour in droves to vote out Goldsmith and express their opposition to Brexit. It was very noticeable in the last few days on the doorstep that the Lib Dems' relentless campaign was paying dividends. All credit to them for playing a good hand well. But it will not be easy for them to repeat this trick in other constituencies. 

The Lib Dems, therefore, did not need the progressive alliance. Labour supporters in Richmond have been voting tactically for decades. I lost count of the number of people who said to me that their instincts and values were to support Labour, but "around here it is a wasted vote". The most revealing statistic is that in the mayoral campaign, Sadiq Khan received 24 per cent of first preferences while Caroline Pidgeon, the Lib Dem candidate got just 7 per cent. If one discounts the fact that Khan was higher profile and had some personal support, this does still suggest that Labour’s real support in the area is around 20 per cent, enough to give the party second place in a good year and certainly to get some councillors elected.

There is also a complicating factor in the election process. I campaigned strongly on opposing Brexit and attacked Goldsmith over his support for welfare cuts, the bedroom tax and his outrageous mayoral campaign. By raising those issues, I helped undermine his support. If I had not stood for election, then perhaps a few voters may have kept on supporting him. One of my concerns about the idea of a progressive alliance is that it involves treating voters with disdain. The implication is that they are not clever enough to make up their mind or to understand the restrictions of the first past the post system. They are given less choice and less information, in a way that seems patronising, and smacks of the worst aspects of old-fashioned Fabianism.

Supporters of the progressive alliance will, therefore, have to overcome all these objections - in addition to practical ones such as negotiating the agreement of all the parties - before being able to implement the concept. 

Christian Wolmar is an award winning writer and broadcaster specialising in transport. He was shortlisted as a Labour mayoral candidate in the 2016 London election, and stood as Labour's candidate in the Richmond Park by-election in December 2016.