Cameron’s European moment has come – a year late

19 January 2013

David Cameron should have given his big Europe speech a year ago. Having just threatened to veto a new EU treaty, he had proved that he was prepared to aggressively defend Britain’s interests, and he had reassured those in his party who worried he wasn’t really serious about Euroscepticism. An address delivered at that point, which was clear about his vision for Britain’s role in Europe but vague about how he intended to achieve it, would have received a fair wind. But there was no follow-up. The veto was left to stand on its own, unconnected to a broader European policy.

There were several reasons for this. The first is that Cameron has always been slow to take advantage of his successes; he has failed to grasp that no currency depreciates faster than political capital. His two greatest successes as Prime Minister, in purely political terms, have been his victory in the AV referendum and the veto threat. But in neither case did he use his success to advance his broader agenda.

When those close to Cameron urged him to use the veto moment to set out his European strategy more fully, he demurred. He argued that it had put such a stress on coalition relations — Nick Clegg went on television to denounce it and refused to attend the Commons statement on it — that the subject was best left alone. And Cameron was right to think that discussing Britain’s relationship with Europe was going to create tensions between the two coalition parties. But, as is clear today, such tension was always inevitable. The other explanation the Prime Minister gave for his reticence was that the rest of Europe wasn’t ready. He argued that following the veto with a referendum pledge would have simply infuriated the other European leaders and led them to rule out any kind of British renegotiation.

But perhaps the more significant reason was that no one in Downing Street was expecting the veto. Until the week of the summit, Cameron was confident that he and Angela Merkel had a deal. Even after threatening a veto, he was nervous about what it meant. Steve Hilton told friends that when he woke up and heard what Cameron had done, he called the team in Brussels to congratulate them. He was ecstatic. But they, he found, were downcast and uncertain. They were heroes in error.

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So Cameron has ended up giving his Europe speech in less propitious circumstances. Over the past year he has suffered a Commons defeat on Europe and seen Ukip’s poll rating surge to record highs, while trust between him and his party has dwindled.

This explains why there is such nervousness among Cameron’s supporters about the consequences of the speech, even though No. 10 is confident that it will be well received. One Cabinet ally thinks that he shouldn’t be giving the speech, because he is not yet ready to raise the prospect of a British exit from the European Union. A former aide, meanwhile, fears that the Prime Minister has made EU renegotiation his defining purpose, when he never wanted to ‘bang on’ about Europe.

These risks have been exacerbated by Cameron’s failure to bind the Cabinet in to his approach. Iain Duncan Smith was not involved in the drafting process at all, despite assurances from the Prime Minister over dinner in the Downing Street flat in November 2011 that he would be consulted on the development of Tory European policy. The only time for a collective discussion of it by Tory secretaries of state was a political Cabinet less than 48 hours before the speech.

These failings can be put down to No. 10’s ‘it’ll be all right on the night’ approach. I’ve lost count of the number of times that Cameron’s advisers have told me that the confusion surrounding the speech will be forgotten as soon as it is delivered. This might be true. But the impression it has created has dented the Cameroons’ reputation for competence and the failure to properly consult the Tory members of the Cabinet has generated considerable ill will.

Part of the problem is the tendency inside Cameron’s immediate circle to groupthink. Too often, those in No. 10 who have sought to question priorities or the way the government is approaching an issue have been treated as if they were just being awkward. This has resulted in some policies not being properly thought out. Since the departure of Hilton, the in-house contrarian, last summer, the problem has worsened.

One of Cameron’s strengths is that he doesn’t get overly hung up on one issue. But, as with so many politicians, his great strength is also a weakness. It is noticeable how little progress there has been since before Christmas on the new policies that were meant to flow from the mid-term review. This is especially striking as some of them — more help with childcare for working mothers, for instance — are frequently touted as among his personal priorities. But with the Treasury not pushing them forward, little is happening. Indeed, there’s a growing suspicion in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office that the Treasury is deliberately going slow on some of the announcements so that it can co-opt them for the budget in March.

Something that cheers many of those close to Cameron is the thought that he is particularly well suited to a renegotiation. One long-time aide argues, ‘He’s the person you want doing this, he’s dogged and understands how to work people. He’s better suited to the task than Maggie would have been. He’ll be able to do it without creating too much collateral damage.’

What’s certain is that Europe is going to join the economy as one of the defining issues of our politics. Before 2015, the other party leaders will have to decide whether to match Cameron’s referendum pledge or not, while he will have to answer endless questions about what he’ll do if it turns out that there is no renegotiation on offer. The leader who wanted to stop the Tories from banging on about Europe is going to end up talking about the subject more than Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard ever did.

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  • http://twitter.com/TheRedBladder The Red Bladder

    Down here in the South West eager anticipation is in the air, the streets are empty and the shops and pubs deserted as we all await, with baited breath, the electrifying moment when “Our Dave” gets up to speak. I cannot remember excitement on this scale since Dodger Beakin’s cider shed was occupied by squatters.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gary.clark.14268769 Gary Clark

    The leader of the fundamentally racist Tory party (as described by Michael Fabricant) day has arrived to tell the EU how ‘Great’ Britain is without them – I mean look at the state we are in now through this government.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Paul-Shakespeare/715581221 Andrew Paul Shakespeare

      And just who got us into that state? I remember a little story about the new Tory minister arriving for his first day at work to find a note on his desk from the outgoing Labour minister saying “There is no money left”!

      That says so much about the state they left the country in, and about their attitude toward it that, when the historians start to analyse the history of the Credit Crunch, every one of them will repeat that story in every book, article and essay they publish. It will probably become the defining statement of Gordon Brown entire period of office.

      • Carvetii

        I always though Gordon Brown’s defining action was when he sold our gold reserves for a pittance… Or when he dismissed an ex- Labour voter with genuine concerns as a ‘bigot’… Or..
        oh forget it – there’s too many to choose from.

      • http://www.facebook.com/gary.clark.14268769 Gary Clark

        yes and Cameron promised to match the spending whilst lying all the way through his election campaign

      • FrenchNewsonlin

        “become the defining statement”… if it doesn’t then it ought to. Indeed it should be printed on every election poster going forward. What that monstrous ministerial flippancy does is sum up the deliberate destruction of the pact between the electorate and its elected representatives, representatives who behaved like spoiled childish brats and then smirked at their foul deeds. That phrase says very clearly that from now on voters cannot trust any democratically elected government to do what it is supposed to do and best represent the voter interest. It is a grotesque betrayal. No wonder the Americans demand the right to bear arms against the government!

    • LEngland

      ‘ – fundamentally RACIALISTIC – ‘ in your humble opinion. Did you skip school ? It is an adjective, you see. Summarily; Antilanguage to antithought ( on matters which occupy their OCD – race, disability etc.) Anyone stooping to this betrays themselves as a conventional conformist. That is, one who is anxious to be seen applauding and promoting the ghastly Jewish 1923 ComIntern, Frankfurt S SR, National Communist Parties, EU, UN Agendum 21 etc. ex – National plan. International Nazi implementatation of inverse Nazi racialistic Eugenics. Pale Nordic and Celtic Caucasoids (NC) are to be Ethnically – cleansed thus permanently removing Britain from the intellectual World Governing elite. That is what you are along with those simpering NC government clerks busily denouncing their race and religion. For what ? To whom ? You make me, and millions of others feel ill that your type should want to drag us to your subterannean level.

      • global city

        Ah, right then!

      • http://www.facebook.com/gary.clark.14268769 Gary Clark

        oh shut up you tart

    • williamblakesghost

      Well I’d respond but your little rant doesn’t really make much sense…

    • terence patrick hewett

      To give it its correct name, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The “Great” in Great Britain does not refer to the level of its magnificence but to the measure of its relative geographical magnitude. It refers to the result of the union of the Kingdom of England (which included Wales) and the Kingdom of Scotland in 1707, that is; it is a greater rather than a lesser Britain and became “United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain.” A common mistake
      made by some is a belief that the United Kingdom was created by the Union of the Crowns in 1603 not the Treaty of Union in 1707. The Union of the Crowns was and is a historical and legal misnomer. The Crowns of the two countries were not united in 1603. The crowns, and the two countries, remained separate. All that happened was that the same head came for the first time to wear the separate crowns of two separate countries. What happened in 1707 was that Anne, Queen of Scotland, entered into a treaty with Anne, Queen of England, to merge the two countries into a single state in international law. Then and only then was there a United Kingdom. The state of Great Britain is also confused in many minds with that of England (and indeed was so used in the past) and also that of the United Kingdom; neither is synonymous. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland was formed by the inclusion of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Act of Union 1800; the Kingdom of Ireland having been created by Proclamation of Henry VIII and was never a sovereign entity; then in 1922 with the creation of the Irish Free State became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, formalised by the Royal and Parliamentary Titles
      Act in 1927. Whatever form of words we use it upsets somebody and lands us in the soup. Fun isn’t it? Hope that helps.

  • Christopher Rigg

    “Cameron was right to think that discussing Britain’s relationship with Europe was going to create tension”. What Cameron says about the European Union does not affect whether Britain is part of Europe, unless he knows something about Continental drift that has not yet been published. Are the British Isles floating across the Atlantic or is the rise in sea level going to make Britain part of Asia?

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Andrew-Paul-Shakespeare/715581221 Andrew Paul Shakespeare

      Idioms and pedantry don’t mix, evidently.

    • Nigel Jones

      Is this really all you can say about the European Union? What does being’part of Europe’ mean to you? Naturally we are geographically ‘part of Europe’. Politically we are not – or don’t want to be. Who would want to be tied to a corpse?

      • global city

        Cuba is only a few dozen miles from Florida. I think that it should join the USA… cue lots of leftie hypocracy!

  • aberoth

    Cameron thinks he speaks for Britain – he doesn’t.England maybe,Scotland never.

    • williamblakesghost

      Haven’t you heard Cameron is a unionist. He doesn’t speak for England!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/James-Bayley/688231492 James Bayley

    About time we left the EU behind isn’t it? Prove that we can get the ‘great’ back in Britain without them weighing our country down with their rules and Human Rights. We lost our pride as a country and we need to get it back. Nigel Farage been banging the drum in the EU courts about us wanting to leave but half the time the French, German or Italian speechers can’t understand him. The EU is crumbling and failing as Farage put it’ they will do anything to keep their EU dream alive. Cameron reminds me of the ‘pied piper’ in the way he leading a nation through lies and empty promises; Cameron promised us a refrendum in 2009 if Con got into power they did and we still waiting for it four years later. Cameron promised the nation last week in a speech that immigrants will not be able to claim benefits within the first six months of entering the country but blantly lied to the public knowing fully well under EU human rights law the ‘promise’ would be prevented by the courts of Human Rights in the EU. The day we leave the EU is the day we get Britain back! Do what I done since my first vote in 2009 vote Ukip, for the good of the country.

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