David Cameron and Angela Merkel at the EU Council building in Brussels on October 25, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Cameron only has himself to blame for the Tories' alliance with Merkel's enemy

The PM's decision to withdraw the Tories from the mainstream European People's Party made it inevitable that his party would form eurosceptic partnerships. 

David Cameron fought hard to stop the eurosceptic Germany party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) from being admitted to the Tory-led European Conservatives and Reformists group. The PM's hopes of a successful EU renegotiation depend on Angela Merkel and the German Chancellor was understandably appalled by the possibility of the Tories teaming up with a right-wing rival to the Christian Democrats (the closest thing Germany has to Ukip). 

But in defiance of Cameron's wishes, the group has voted to admit them, with some Conservative MEPs supporting the move. The latest arrival means that the ECR is now the third-largest bloc in the European Parliament, but that will be of no consolation to Cameron. His MEPs have shamlessly defied his authority and further weakened his standing with Merkel (already dented by his "threats" over Jean-Claude Juncker's bid to become EU commission president).

The line from Conservative HQ is that they are "very disappointed" that AfD (which opposes the euro and the US-EU free trade agreement) have been admitted against their wishes and that "the CDU/CSU remains our only sister party in Germany". But while that may be true, Merkel would be within her rights to conclude that she can't do business with a man who can't control his party. 

It's a point that Labour has been quick to make, with shadow Europe minister Gareth Thomas commenting:

This shows just how far David Cameron is being pushed around by his own party when it comes to Europe. We know he can’t control his Eurosceptic backbenchers on Europe, and now it seems he’s lost control of his MEPs too.

Just when the Prime Minister needs to maximise British influence in Europe, his MEPs have instead chosen to isolate themselves to the fringes of Europe and alienate our allies.

What started as a political management problem for David Cameron risks turning into a crisis between Britain and one of our most crucial European allies.

David Cameron can’t control his party over Europe, and now it is Britain’s influence and standing in Europe that is at risk of being undermined as a result. 

But while Cameron will do all he can to distance himself from the results, the truth is that he only has himself to blame (as Nick Tyrone has previously argued on The Staggers). His decision to withdraw the Conservatives from the mainstream European People's Party in 2009 made it inevitable that his MEPs and others would seek partnership with eurosceptic fringe parties (some, such as the xenophobic Danish People's Party, well to the right of the AfD). 

That move was the fulfilment of a pledge made by Cameron during the 2005 Conservative leadership election to appease eurosceptic MPs. But as so often, concessions designed to strengthen his hand have only succeeded in weakening it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

0800 7318496