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.