David Cameron and Angela Merkel at the EU Council building in Brussels on October 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Cameron only has himself to blame for the Tories' latest Europe row

After withdrawing from the centre-right European People's Party grouping, Cameron has no right to tell his MEPs not to flirt with the anti-Euro Alternative für Deutschland.

There was an article in Saturday’s Guardian regarding overtures made by Conservative MEPs in Brussels to the German anti-Euro party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a group that anticipates doing well in this year’s European elections. Rumour has it that the Tory MEPs are being egged on by Westminster backbenchers, with the ringleader in Brussels being Daniel Hannan (although in the article he refuses to confirm this). This is relevant to David Cameron because AFD is an explicitly anti-Merkel party, made up of many CDU defectors, and the alleged alliance building is scheming by those Tories who wish to see Cameron’s plan to renegotiate Britain’s place within the EU and then hold a referendum destroyed.

This may confuse some. Why would Eurosceptic Tories want to scupper the In/Out referendum they so desire? Because they want it on their own terms. They fear that Cameron will stitch up  somethingwith Merkel, oversell it back home and then stroll to victory in the resultant referendum when all three major parties back the campaign to remain in the EU. So uniting with Merkel’s enemies in the European parliament seems to be a good first step to preventing this from occurring.

The worst thing for Cameron is that this is yet another hole that he has dug for himself. The Prime Minister put this train of events into motion when he pulled the Conservatives out of the main centre-right grouping in the EU parliament, the European People's Party (EPP), and helped form the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) in the summer of 2009. Like most manoeuvres Cameron has made in regards to Europe, this was done to appease the Eurosceptics in his party; to silence them once and for all. And like all the other concessions he has made to this element, it has backfired spectacularly. It has strengthened the hand of those calling for Cameron to be more explicitly Eurosceptic. Given the fact that the Tory leader, in his heart of hearts, wants Britain to remain in the EU, this was a terrible error. Now, the fruit of that disastrous move is ripening. Had Cameron kept the Tories in the EPP he could have appealed directly to Merkel and other members of the group as a member himself; he could have told them to use the UK renegotiation for cover to make centre-right reforms to the single market that the EPP members themselves would have liked. Instead, he’s in a position where his party is flirting with an anti-Merkel populist party in Brussels. And what can he possibly do about it? He was the one who put them in the ECR in the first place, so what right does he have to tell his MEPs not to flirt with potential members of the grouping he established?

People have often asked why Tory MEPs like Dan Hannan, given their hard line Eurosceptic views, don’t simply join UKIP. While long term party loyalty is surely a factor, the tactical reason is that by remaining Tories they ensure the presence of British Eurosceptics in two EU parliament groupings: in the ECR and the even more anti-EU Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) grouping that includes UKIP. They also get to try and ruin Cameron’s plans for a "stitch-up" from the inside.

Which brings us neatly back to the Alternative für Deutschland  bunch and the depressing thought that anti-EU parties will triumph in the upcoming elections. Those of us who care about the European project can only vote with our hearts and hope for the best come 22 May. 

Nick Tyrone works for the Electoral Reform Society but writes in a personal capacity. His articles can be found at www.nicktyrone.com

Nick Tyrone is Chief Executive of Radix, the think tank for the radical centre.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.