David Cameron at No 10 with Herman van Rompuy, president of the European Council, 23 June. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Britain’s growing Europe problem

The aim of the Prime Minister’s European policy was never to protect Britain’s best interests within Europe but to appease restive backbenchers.

So which is David Cameron: reckless or incompetent? That was the question Poland’s anglophile foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski (an old Oxford and Bullingdon Club acquaintance of Boris Johnson), posed during a private meal. “He f***ed up the fiscal pact,” the magazine Wprost reported Mr Sikorski as saying. “Because he’s not interested, because he doesn’t know, because he believes in all that stupid propaganda and is trying stupidly to manipulate the system.”

This was not a tactical leak. What it revealed was that Mr Cameron has succeeded in alienating even Britain’s closest European partners, without winning a single concession to our national interest from them.

A further difficulty was looming for Mr Cameron as we went to press. At a meeting scheduled for Friday 27 June, the British government hoped to force a vote in an attempt to block Jean-Claude Juncker’s candidacy to become the new president of the European Commission. However, the UK lacks the goodwill to make this case. Mr Juncker, the former prime minister of Luxembourg, is a federalist. His selection as the candidate for the presidency to succeed Portugal’s José Manuel Barroso would highlight Mr Cameron’s poli­tical weakness, even irrelevance, and act as an obstacle to his aspiration to renegotiate the UK’s membership of the European Union.

For all the noise surrounding the debate about the EU, there is a remarkable degree of consensus about the best policies to promote Britain’s national interests in Europe. The leaderships of the three main parties favour reform of European institutions; all want to protect the single market; and all are determined to resist “ever closer union”. Both Labour and Conservative politicians have expressed an interest in restricting the free movement of labour within the EU.

The essential difference between the parties is not one of goals but of tactics. Labour politicians have generally clothed their desire to repatriate powers and resist further integration in the language of commitment and compromise. The Conservatives, by contrast, have attempted to coerce ostensible allies with threats of a British exit from the EU.

The aim of the Prime Minister’s European policy was never to protect Britain’s best interests within Europe but to appease restive backbenchers. Under his leadership, the Tories withdrew from the European People’s Party grouping, abandoning a coalition of the mainstream European centre right for the company of xenophobes and cranks. Tories have characterised eastern European immigrants as benefit tourists. And Mr Cameron has guaranteed that a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU would be held in 2017, if not before then.

If all of this was intended to ensure the loyalty of Eurosceptic backbenchers, it has failed: Mr Cameron’s attempts to appease the right have merely emboldened it. As Alex Salmond said, in an interview with the NS last year: “You can never out-swivel-eye the swivel-eyed.”

In Brussels, meanwhile, this strategy has weakened both the government’s influence and its credibility. Mr Cameron possibly assumed that other European leaders could be cajoled into acceding to Britain’s demands.

The Prime Minister ignored the reality that they have anxious electorates and sceptical backbenchers, too. Having staked everything on being granted reforms that he seems ever more unlikely to achieve, there is a chance that Mr Cameron’s legacy will be Britain’s accidental abandonment of the European project.

This is a result that very few senior British politicians favour, certainly not William Hague. He was an ardently Eurosceptic leader of the Conservatives but has been an impressively pragmatic Foreign Secretary. Some of his colleagues have even complained of his having been “captured” by the pro-European mandarins at the Foreign Office.

If there is any consolation for the UK’s supine pro-European lobby, it comes, unexpectedly, from Nigel Farage. As Ukip’s poll ratings have risen, so has support for Britain’s continued EU membership. It is possible that, by associating Euroscepticism with fear and xenophobia, Mr Farage has made the case for Europe in a way his mainstream rivals never could. 

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Who was Franz Ferdinand?

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.