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

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Metro mayors can help Labour return to government

Labour champions in the new city regions can help their party at the national level too.

2017 will mark the inaugural elections of directly-elected metro mayors across England. In all cases, these mayor and cabinet combined authorities are situated in Labour heartlands, and as such Labour should look confidently at winning the whole slate.

Beyond the good press winning again will generate, these offices provide an avenue for Labour to showcase good governance, and imperatively, provide vocal opposition to the constraints of local government by Tory cuts.

The introduction of the Mayor of London in 2000 has provided a blueprint for how the media can provide a platform for media-friendly leadership. It has also demonstrated the ease that the office allows for attribution of successes to that individual and party – or misappropriated in context of Boris Bikes and to a lesser extent the London Olympics.

While without the same extent of the powers of the sui generis mayor of the capital, the prospect of additional metro-mayors provide an opportunity for replicating these successes while providing experience for Labour big-hitters to develop themselves in government. This opportunity hasn’t gone unnoticed, and after Sadiq Khan’s victory in London has shown that the role can grow beyond the limitations – perceived or otherwise - of the Corbyn shadow cabinet while strengthening team Labour’s credibility by actually being in power.

Shadow Health Secretary and former leadership candidate Andy Burnham’s announcement last week for Greater Manchester was the first big hitter to make his intention known. The rising star of Luciana Berger, another member of Labour’s health team, is known to be considering a run in the Liverpool City Region. Could we also see them joined by the juggernaut of Liam Byrne in the West Midlands, or next-generation Catherine McKinnell in the North East?

If we can get a pantheon of champions elected across these city regions, to what extent can this have an influence on national elections? These new metro areas represent around 11.5 million people, rising to over 20 million if you include Sadiq’s Greater London. While no doubt that is an impressive audience that our Labour pantheon are able to demonstrate leadership to, there are limitations. 80 of the 94 existing Westminster seats who are covered under the jurisdiction of the new metro-mayors are already Labour seats. While imperative to solidify our current base for any potential further electoral decline, in order to maximise the impact that this team can have on Labour’s resurgence there needs to be visibility beyond residents.

The impact of business is one example where such influence can be extended. Andy Burnham for example has outlined his case to make Greater Manchester the creative capital of the UK. According to the ONS about 150,000 people commute into Greater Manchester, which is two constituency’s worth of people that can be directly influenced by the Mayor of Greater Manchester.

Despite these calculations and similar ones that can be made in other city-regions, the real opportunity with selecting the right Labour candidates is the media impact these champion mayors can make on the national debate. This projects the influence from the relatively-safe Labour regions across the country. This is particularly important to press the blame of any tightening of belts in local fiscal policy on the national Tory government’s cuts. We need individuals who have characteristics of cabinet-level experience, inspiring leadership, high profile campaigning experience and tough talking opposition credentials to support the national party leadership put the Tory’s on the narrative back foot.

That is not to say there are not fine local council leaders and technocrats who’s experience and governance experience at vital to Labour producing local successes. But the media don’t really care who number two is, and these individuals are best serving the national agenda for the party if they support A-listers who can shine a bright spotlight on our successes and Tory mismanagement.

If Jeremy Corbyn and the party are able to topple the Conservatives come next election, then all the better that we have a diverse team playing their part both on the front bench and in the pantheon of metro-mayors. If despite our best efforts Jeremy’s leadership falls short, then we will have experienced leaders in waiting who have been able to afford some distance from the front-bench, untainted and able to take the party’s plan B forward.