David Cameron arrives for the second day of the EU Council on June 27, 2014 at the EU headquarters in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Cameron's failure to block Juncker isn't a glorious defeat

Britain looks closer to the EU exit than ever - an outcome the PM never wanted.

Through an act of political alchemy, David Cameron is seeking to turn his failure to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker being nominated as the next president of the EU commission into a success.  The Prime Minister wants this outcome to be seen as a glorious defeat, casting himself as the plucky Brit who stood alone (along with hard-right Hungary) against the federalist foe.

He shouldn't be allowed to rewrite history. When Cameron made his opposition to Juncker clear three weeks ago it was in the belief that other European leaders, most importantly Angela Merkel, would rally to his cause. They didn't. Rather than siding with Cameron, Merkel publicly rebuked him for warning that Juncker's nomination would threaten Britain's EU membership. For the first time since Cameron pledged to hold an in/out referendum by the end of 2017, the Conservative hypothesis that this vow would make it easier to secure concessions was stress-tested - and exploded almost immediately.

As pro-Europeans warned at the time of the PM's Bloomberg speech, it is patient alliance-building, not blackmail, that is required for progress in Europe. Cameron's utter failure in this regard was helpfully exposed on Monday when the Polish government's private view of his strategy was published by Wprost magazine. The foreign minister of a country that should be a natural ally of the UK was revealed to have declared that Cameron "fucked up the fiscal pact", believes in "stupid propaganda" and "stupidly tries to play the system". He added: "You know, his whole strategy of feeding them scraps in order to satisfy them is just as I predicted, turning against him; he should have said: 'fuck off!'. Tried to convince people and isolate [the sceptics]. But he ceded the field to those that are now embarrassing him."

It should never be forgotten that Cameron did not want to promise an in/out EU referendum. Along with other Conservative ministers, he voted against one in the House of Commons in 2011. The pledge was wrung out of him by recalcitrant backbenchers who took him hostage and have not relinquished their grip since.

There are plenty in Cameron's party who will relish Britain's isolation today. Some, espousing revolutionary defeatism, will even welcome Juncker's nomination. As Marxists used to say, "the worse things get, the better". But they are those whose only concern is to force Britain out of the EU by whatever means possible. It was precisely to avoid capitulating to this faction that Cameron resisted granting a referendum for so long. But he gave way, insisting that the EU could be reformed to Britain's tastes. The nomination of Juncker is a hammer blow to this notion. Not only is the federalist's victory proof of the UK's feeble influence, it will also make it far harder to secure any significant concessions on the free movement of labour and the principle of "ever closer union". Never in 41 years of membership has Britain looked closer to the EU exit door - and that is not an outcome that Cameron ever wanted.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.