Cameron and Merkel at a joint press conference. Source Getty
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Cameron's European predicament is unchanged by Merkel's visit

Germany is Britain's ally in reforming the EU, but that's no use to Tories who say “reform” and mean exit.

Angela Merkel has helped David Cameron about as much as she could, which isn’t much. Downing Street has invested a lot of diplomatic capital in the German Chancellor’s visit and it would have been astonishing had she not repaid that effort with some encouraging noises.

In practice, that meant confirming the existence of common ground between the two leaders on certain areas of potential European reform. Specifically, Germany shares some British concerns about the way freedom of movement within the EU works in combination with migrants’ access to benefits.

But even there, Merkel was clear that the underlying principle of open borders between member states was inviolable.  And her over-arching message was a defence of the European project and Britain’s place within it. That isn’t what Conservative MPs want to hear and the Chancellor knew it: “Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I’m afraid they are in for a disappointment,” she said.

After all the anticipation and briefing, Downing Street’s predicament is the same after Merkel’s visit as it was before. Germany is Britain’s ally if the agenda is staying in a reformed EU, while much of the Conservative party uses the discussion of reform as a proxy for breaking free altogether. At that point, Berlin loses patience. In any case, neither Merkel, nor any other European head of government is very interested in starting a process of negotiation predicated on doing special favours for the UK  until it is clear that there really is no alternative. In other words, the conversation about a new settlement between Britain and Brussels only starts in earnest if Cameron is returned to No10 in May next year. Before then, it’s all mood music and waffle about directions of travel.

No10 now tacitly recognises that there will be no tangible progress before a general election, not least because the Conservatives are still in coalition with the Lib Dems and they don’t accept the substance of Cameron’s ambition for a drastic membership overhaul as government policy. It is just a Tory aspiration. That means the civil service don’t even want to do the preparatory work on what might be involved.

But there isn’t much chance that Conservative back benchers will just accept that Britain’s relationship with the EU has to trundle along on its current trajectory, unreformed and unchallenged by Downing Street right up until polling day. Merkel can’t get Cameron out of that hole. She’s done what she can to indicate that there is an appetite in Germany for EU reform and has actively encouraged Britain to take the role of a lead reformer. And if that were the sole object of Cameron’s European policy he would now be in a position to declare a degree of success.  But it isn't, so he can't. Merkel can help him in Brussels; she can't help him with the Tory back benches - and that's the audience for which his policy was fashioned in the first place.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Why the Labour rebels have delayed their leadership challenge

MPs hope that Jeremy Corbyn may yet resign, while Owen Smith is competing with Angela Eagle to be the candidate.

The Eagle has hovered but not yet landed. Yesterday evening Angela Eagle's team briefed that she would launch her leadership challenge at 3pm today. A senior MP told me: "the overwhelming view of the PLP is that she is the one to unite Labour." But by this lunchtime it had become clear that Eagle wouldn't declare today.

The delay is partly due to the hope that Jeremy Corbyn may yet be persuaded to resign. Four members of his shadow cabinet - Clive Lewis, Rachel Maskell, Cat Smith and Andy McDonald - were said by sources to want the Labour leader to stand down. When they denied that this was the case, I was told: "Then they're lying to their colleagues". There is also increasing speculation that Corbyn has come close to departing. "JC was five minutes away from resigning yesterday," an insider said. "But Seumas [Milne] torpedoed the discussions he was having with Tom Watson." 

Some speak of a potential deal under which Corbyn would resign in return for a guarantee that an ally, such as John McDonnell or Lewis, would make the ballot. But others say there is not now, never has there ever been, any prospect of Corbyn departing. "The obligation he feels to his supporters is what sustains him," a senior ally told me. Corbyn's supporters, who are confident they can win a new leadership contest, were cheered by Eagle's delay. "The fact even Angela isn't sure she should be leader is telling, JC hasn't wavered once," a source said. But her supporters say she is merely waiting for him to "do the decent thing". 

Another reason for the postponement is a rival bid by Owen Smith. Like Eagle, the former shadow work and pensions secrtary is said to have collected the 51 MP/MEP nominations required to stand. Smith, who first revealed his leadership ambitions to me in an interview in January, is regarded by some as the stronger candidate. His supporters fear that Eagle's votes in favour of the Iraq war and Syria air strikes (which Smith opposed) would be fatal to her bid. 

On one point Labour MPs are agreed: there must be just one "unity candidate". But after today's delay, a challenger may not be agreed until Monday. In the meantime, the rebels' faint hope that Corbyn may depart endures. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.