Not wading but drowning. (Photo: Getty)
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If David Cameron can't bully the broadcasters, how's his EU renegotiation going to work out?

David Cameron has muffed his strategy as far as the debates are concerned. Even if he gets away with it, it's a bad sign if he ends up having to renegotiate Britain's relationship with the EU.

If David Cameron is returned to Downing Street this May, his jubilation will be short lived. As Ed Miliband's head rolls and Labour becomes a circular firing squad of recriminations, a nagging internal voice will be ruining the Tory leader's moment: “Hey Dave, how's that EU renegotiation going?” He'll try and push it aside, but the voice will get louder and louder: “Lovely day to repatriate some powers from Brussels, wouldn't y'say?” Worse, this voice will be less persistent and more polite than his backbenchers and previously friendly media allies.

If he has any self-awareness, Cameron should be beginning to question whether he's the right man for the job. One thing the TV debate furore has taught us is that Cameron's negotiating skills are pretty limited. If he can't influence Sky, ITV, Channel 4 and the BBC, what hope has he got persuading 27 other EU members to make terms noticeably more favourable to Britain by 2017?

The TV broadcasters were supposed to be a pushover. Bound by strict election impartiality laws, all that was required was for the Tories to make some positive but non-committal noises, play down the clock, shrug and say “we tried.” They just needed to avoid anything too provocative, like, oh, I don't know... writing an antagonistic open letter blaming their addressee for “a deeply unsatisfactory process”, while simultaneously ducking meetings. And they absolutely shouldn't send a insufferably chummy Grant Shapps on TV to repeat the inplausible accusation over and over again while heroically ignoring the interviewers' logical counter-points. 

Bullying the Beeb should be a cake-walk when you're holding a giant novelty cheque over its collective head, yet Cameron's team has somehow managed to be so obnoxious and inept that even they've summoned enough courage to bite the hand that feeds. Well, nibbled it. They're considering empty chairing the PM, but giving him his own one-man show for balance - a bit like slapping someone in the face, then driving them to A&E and demanding 24 hour care. But hey, maybe they'll surprise everyone and dress the Prime Minister's podium up as a giant pram, with a series of toys scattered around it. This not-so-subtle symbolism would neatly back up what the polls say everyone's thinking.

Even if the debates don't happen thanks to a legal logjam, Cameron has overplayed his hand. He'll be blamed, and seen as cowardly, calculating, conniving and a pick of other choice 'C' words. This sorry spectacle doesn't bode well for Europe. It seems our Prime Minister has just the one negotiating gear: 'agree to my terms, or I'm not playing'.

If he can't intimidate four broadcasters - one of whom is so timid that it's contemplating giving him An Evening with David Cameron as a peace offering - how on Earth is he going to get his way with 27 highly skilled politicians? Despite the higher stakes, his tactics have been eerily similar to date: complain loudly to alienate the people you need to ingratiate yourself too, and then threaten to leave if you don't get your way. Cameron won great respect from a supportively jingoistic press for using his EU veto in 2011, but far less column inches were devoted to the subsequent U turn when Europe collectively decided to ignore Brave Dave and push on regardless.

How does Cameron think this petulance plays out with the people he ultimately wants on his side? Thomas Matussek, a former German ambassador to Britain once told The Guardian, “The 'my way or the highway' strategy that Margaret Thatcher pioneered is certainly getting on a lot of Germans' nerves, because they feel Cameron is constantly setting ultimatums rather than trying seek compromises”. Cameron's unique take on the diplomatic charm offensive seems to hinge overwhelmingly on the offence part.

Sir John Major – much lampooned for being weak on Europe by his party – understood that Britain couldn't just demand to get everything its own way. He managed to achieve a couple of major concessions with the Mastricht Treaty, even though – as Andrew Rawnsley points out - none of our European partners wanted to give way. While Major built bridges, Cameron seems determined to jump up and down on them until they crumble.

Maybe I'm completely wrong, and Cameron is a stronger negotiator than I thought, but all the signs point to someone who never lost at Risk, because he used his 'veto' to pack up the board and go home. Ironically, his stubbornness with the broadcasters might make it moot: an empty chair in front of 22 million Britain's could remind them why they don't want him practicing his petulant poker face in Brussels.

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Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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