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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.