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' 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.

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear