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Cameron's pulling us to a European exit but this is no sceptic’s fantasy

The PM has yet to get into the room to fight a battle to secure the national interest.

The European Union is evolving quickly and unpredictably; Britain's capacity to influence that process is in decline. It is this combination of circumstances that will lead eventually to a referendum. David Cameron travels to Brussels for a summit on 30 January with an impossible mission. He is expected to break out of the diplomatic isolation that resulted from his decision to obstruct a new EU treaty last December. Yet he must also retain the goodwill of his MPs, most of whom believe his isolation in Europe is quite splendid.

It isn't. The act that was advertised in Britain as a "veto" was in reality a snub. The treaty that Cameron refused to sign will go ahead anyway. The exemptions he demanded for the UK's financial services industry remain rejected. That failure was ingeniously but dishonestly presented to the public as a gesture of patriotic defiance. The consequences of that deception are gradually becoming clear. Cameron still needs to secure British influence over the single market - the free-trading rules in which even Eurosceptics see virtue. The new treaty might be conceived as an emergency pact to stabilise the crisis-stricken euro, but with 26 out of 27 EU member states involved, discussions are certain to sprawl into other aspects of economic co-operation.

Damage limitation

The so-called eurozone-plus group will surely end up fiddling in areas in which the UK would traditionally insist on having a say - financial regulation, tax co-ordination, competition policy. Except, unlike in past negotiations, Britain starts off on the wrong side of the door. Cameron has yet to get into the room to fight a battle to secure the national interest, despite having sold it in advance as a famous victory.

Quietly, British officials have been doing their best to repair damaged European rela­tionships. Those ministers - up to and including the Chancellor - who must regularly deal with continental counterparts are being especially accommodating. "The whole government has suddenly become achingly communautaire," says one senior cabinet minister of his colleagues' conspicuous shows of European solidarity.

While isolated in the current treaty talks, Britain is by no means friendless in Europe. There is a receptive audience in many capitals to the UK's calls for freer markets, liberal reforms and more vigorous competition as the way to boost productivity and jump-start European growth. In that respect, Downing Street thinks it has found a potential ally in Mario Monti, the new Italian prime minister and a former competition commissioner in Brussels. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, despite immense irritation with Cameron's combative stance in December, still sees Britain as a vital counterweight to France in the overall balance of European power.

A deal could still be done that would restore Britain's position at the top table and ensure that the UK perspective is expressed when wider economic reform is on the agenda. There is just one obstacle: the Conservative Party.

Last December, Cameron found the limit to what Tories will tolerate in terms of the compromises required to make European diplomacy work. He set off for Brussels with Tory MPs' demands for a demonstration of "bulldog spirit" ringing in his ears. Less audible but more menacing were whispers to the effect that his leadership would not be secure in the event of a craven capitulation to the forces of European integration. Anything less than wrecking intransigence would have been treated by the Conservative back benches as treason, so that is the path Cameron chose.

There is now an expectation in the party that Cameron will build on his defiant stand and negotiate the "repatriation" of European powers to Westminster. That is a fantasy. It seems to have escaped the attention of the Eurosceptics that repatriation is precisely what was rejected by every other member of the EU in December.

The regulatory exemptions Cameron demanded for the City of London at the last summit would have required reopening the Lisbon Treaty - the pact that decrees which areas of policy are subject to majority voting and which can be vetoed by national leaders. There is not a less appealing can of worms in the larders of Brussels. The Prime Minister should not have been surprised when his invitation to prise it open was curtly declined.

From the point of view of his fellow European leaders, Cameron is welcome to rejoin the discussion about EU economic reform and reclaim Britain's influence in the single market, as long as he doesn't start raking over past agreements. From the point of view of the Tory Party, Cameron is permitted to talk about EU reform on the one condition that past agreements are gradually unpicked. In other words, there is no overlap between the diplomacy that might secure Britain's influence in Brussels and the behaviour that is acceptable to the mainstream of the Conservative Party.

No deal

That makes it all but inevitable that the UK will continue to be marginalised in the negotiation of a new treaty. That pact will then surely empower a newly integrated eurozone-plus core to meddle with the single market in ways that would be unacceptable to Britain - regardless of who was prime minister. Cameron could never sign such a deal, still less steer it through parliament. Yet even if such a treaty is signed without Britain, the country's relationship with the EU would be fundamentally altered by it. Eurosceptics would spot the guaranteed dilution of UK influence over the single market and denounce it as a disastrous surrender of power. They would be right.

Meanwhile, other countries signing up to the treaty would hold referendums of their own. The governments of Ireland and the Netherlands are constitutionally obliged to consult their citizens on any substantial new EU pact. The pressure to allow British voters to voice their opinion on the new settlement would be irresistible. A bad deal would duly be rejected.

This is not meant as a Eurosceptic fantasy or a pro-European jeremiad. It is simply the trajectory we are on: away from influence in Europe; towards the exit.

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

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, President Newt

Photo: Getty Images
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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.