The secret of David Cameron’s Europe strategy: he doesn’t have one

Calling for a referendum is not the same as having a strategy on Europe

18 May 2013

Shortly before the Conservative party conference last year, the head of the Fresh Start Group of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs went in to see the Prime Minister in Downing Street. The group had heard that David Cameron might make his big Europe speech at the gathering and its head, Andrea Leadsom, wanted to set out what to ask for in any renegotiation.

When Leadsom returned from the meeting, her colleagues were desperate to know what the PM had said: which powers did he most want returned from the EU? What would be the centrepiece of his great diplomatic effort? All Leadsom could do was repeat what Cameron had told her: ‘I don’t like shopping lists.’

This sums up Cameron’s attitude towards this renegotiation: announcing it is enough for the time being. When he eventually did make his big Europe speech in January, it contained nothing as clear as a shopping list. There was lots of hifalutin’ language but painfully little detail.

As any shopper can tell you, there’s a danger in heading out without writing down your list: you forget crucial items, buy stuff the family doesn’t need. But Cameron has a further problem. It’s not just that he doesn’t like shopping lists, it’s that he hasn’t even really got one.

When I asked his closest advisers what Cameron wants back from Europe, the reply was that it’d be ‘crazy to reveal our hand before we’ve played this game of European poker’. But when I pressed further, I received a franker answer: ‘That’s what we have to figure out.’ The leadership urges patience, saying that the negotiation position will be ‘described in greater detail come the manifesto’. But if Cameron is to stand a chance in this game of poker, he has to know what cards are in his hand and precisely which ones he needs to pick up.

Of course, the other reason Cameron is reluctant to give any details is his fear that it’ll set off an almighty row inside the Conservative party. Nearly all Conservative MPs can get behind renegotiation. But they want very different things from it.

Downing Street has reassured Europhile ministers that it has limited ambitions: to take back powers on justice and home affairs, agree an opt-out from the working time directive for the NHS and hash out regional policy bits on agriculture and fishing and the Common Foreign and -Security Policy.

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Even if Cameron succeeded in repatriating all of this, it would not transform the nature of Britain’s EU membership, and it’s hard to see it being sufficient for the majority of the Cabinet outers — there are, by my count, at least ten of them. It would certainly not be enough for the prince over Tower Bridge, the Mayor of London. Boris Johnson is now clear that any renegotiation must include a derogation on immigration allowing Britain to limit the rights of free movement for citizens from new EU members states. This is something that the Foreign Office (including those close to the Foreign Secretary) regard as out of the question given the fundamental importance of free movement in the European Union’s founding documents.

It is nigh-on impossible to see the bulk of the parliamentary party rallying behind a deal like this with any enthusiasm. And that’s another reason that No. 10 are reluctant to flesh out any real renegotiation strategy now. They are acutely aware that the party will add more items to any negotiating position. As one insider puts it, ‘They’re terrified of detail.’ Another says irritably, ‘Every time we set out something, they want more.’

No. 10 also know that as soon as they create any kind of renegotiation scorecard they increase the chances of Britain eventually leaving the EU; this country is unlikely to get everything it wants out of any renegotiation. This is a real problem for many inside No. 10, because for them this exercise is about saving Britain’s EU membership.

Downing Street is not as Eurosceptic a place as you would expect given the state of Conservative opinion. There are few people close to the Prime Minister you would call Eurosceptic. His chief of staff, Ed Llewellyn, is a personal Cameron loyalist. But intellectually Llewellyn is a Pattenite. He is so close to the former party chairman that he followed him to Hong Kong and Brussels. Tellingly, Chris Patten, one of the most pro-European figures in British public life, let alone the Conservative party, has been one of the grandees that No. 10 have been quickest to call on; they turned to him to rescue the 2010 papal visit, then put him in charge of the BBC Trust. Llewellyn also, understandably, believes that it is his job to make the coalition work. He has better links to the Lib Dems than most Conservatives, having worked for Paddy Ashdown in Bosnia alongside Clegg’s man in No. 10, Julian Astle. He knows that Europe is one of those issues that could break the coalition.

Then there’s the new head of the Downing Street policy unit, Jo Johnson, one of the few pro-Europeans in the most recent Conservative parliamentary intake. While most Tory MPs cheered Cameron’s EU veto in December 2011, Johnson had grave reservations. In private, he has said that it is unreasonable to think that the City can be exempted from European regulation, given that what happens there so affects other EU member states. His appointment to this job is a reminder that you don’t have to be a Eurosceptic to work in Cameron’s Downing Street.

There is no push for Euroscepticism from the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, either. Back in 1997, Hague might have been one of the most Eurosceptic politicians in Britain. But you couldn’t say this today. One Cabinet colleague says exasperatedly, ‘He’s not a Eurosceptic any more.’ Hague’s friends argue that he hasn’t moved his position. This may be true. But the debate has shifted. Out, which used to be a fringe position, is fast becoming a mainstream view in the Conservative party. Tellingly, when Michael Gove and Philip Hammond declared that they would vote out rather than stay in on the current terms, there were no calls for them to be sacked. That Rubicon has now been crossed.

It is this shift that will eventually force Cameron to change his position: no leader can afford to be this distant from the views of his party on the issue that matters to it most. Cameron is a pragmatist and he’ll bring back from Brussels as much as his party forces him to.

At the moment, the Cameroons are whining about the Conservative party being ‘unleadable’. There is much quoting of Cameron’s new favourite columnist, Dan Hodges, a former trade union official who is equally scathing about Conservative backbenchers and Ed Miliband. But even those who are indulging in this pastime know that it is not serious politics: if they really believed the Conservative party was unleadable, they wouldn’t be spending their lives trying to lead it. Instead, they would be off making the easy money that now comes to those who’ve recently served at the heart of government in -Britain.

Downing Street must take a large share of the blame for the difficulties of the past few days. It was political negligence not to have a convincing stance on Europe ready for the aftermath of the County Council elections, considering Ukip were bound to do well. Even before that, No. 10 had failed to build on the Prime Minister’s Europe speech. One loyalist PPS admits, ‘It’s typical No. 10. They do something good but then there’s no follow-up and that creates a vacuum for troublemakers to fill.’

The main thing that Eurosceptic Cabinet ministers want Cameron to do is follow through the logic of his current position and say he’ll advocate leaving if Britain doesn’t get what it needs in the renegotiation. Several of them — backed up by Boris Johnson — have said this to him from the outset. They’ve warned that without this threat, he’ll receive little in any negotiation. They believe that from this position, they can beef up Cameron’s demands. The Prime Minister might not be sure of what he wants, but nearly every Cabinet minister has ideas about what he should want.

But Cameron is wary of doing this for several reasons. First, it would irritate the Germans — who are his best hope of getting a deal in Europe. Angela Merkel has
made it clear she doesn’t appreciate this kind of talk. Her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble took the opportunity of a Commons lunch last Friday with influential Conservative MPs including Jesse Norman, a member of Cameron’s policy board, and Greg Hands, the Treasury Whip, to issue a reminder on this front. Second, Cameron doesn’t want to panic the multinationals. He fears they’d be wary of investing in this country if the Prime Minister put such a question mark against Britain’s EU membership.

Nevertheless, one of those most involved in the Conservative European debate believes it is now 50/50 that Cameron will say this by conference. He’d certainly be well advised to do it before the European elections. If Ukip top the poll then — as Downing Street expect — the pressure on him to say this will be irresistible. The last week should have taught Downing Street that if Cameron doesn’t lead on Europe, events get away from him all too quickly.

What the Conservative party needs to remember is that a referendum is not a strategy. The drama of the last week has all been about process not substance. Far more important than the precise date of the referendum or whether or not it is legislated for in this parliament is what kind of membership of the European Union the Prime Minister is going to try to obtain.

Conservative Eurosceptics should have two aims. First, to ensure that renegotiation and the referendum take place. That’ll require a Conservative Prime Minister after 2015. Second, to ensure that when Cameron heads to Brussels, he knows what he needs to bring home and what is too high a price to pay for EU membership.

Nigel Farage on the view from Ukip — spectator.co.uk/podcast

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Show comments
  • gram64

    Cameron is basically a PR man, and such men are only capable of short-termist thinking. They are usually also only capable of reacting to events, because they’re usually called in to put spin on a disaster. PR, by its nature, is short-term, shallow fudging. There is no depth or conviction to it.

    The probability is that the Conservatives will lose the 2015 election (we all know UKIP will win the 2014 one), and that they will then undergo a process by which they will become UKIP in all but name, or merge with that party. That party (or UKIP, if the Tories wither on the vine) will get Britain out of the EU when it gets into government, which it is certain to do sooner rather than later. It is absolutely inevitable that Britain will leave the EU. The strains of membership are already too great, and will only get considerably greater, before that inevitable parting of the ways.

    • Sarkastracus

      The 2014 election will see more attention paid to UKIP’s allies in the European parliament, many of who are out and out racists, homophobes and anti-semites. So I wouldn’t bank on UKIP coming first in the UK.

      • xDemosthenesx

        Non sequitur – why would people who are attracted to vote for a party out of their dislike of Europe care about other parties who are in the parliament that they are desperate to leave?

      • Andy

        Oh I think UKIP could very well come first. No one here gives a stuff about whom UKIP have to sit with in the silly EU Parliament.

      • global city

        Let us hope that the genuine Communists and deep greens who wish to see mass murder get the same treatment hey?

  • xDemosthenesx

    Cameron believes deeply that he ‘saved the Conservative party with his bonkers ‘de-toxyfiying’ rubbish. He refuses to believe that while he was spouting all of this Blair-lite nonsense the public mood shifted firmly to where the Tories should have been in the first place.

    This cost him a majority in the general election and is looking increasingly likely to cost him his position as leader as he refuses to face the reality that all his accomplishments to date amount to nothing and were on the most part realised despite him rather than by him.

    Stop pandering to the Guardian readers and ‘trendy people who would vote for Obama in the US’ – they will always hate you.

    As for negotiation – he should pin his colours to the mast and declare that he will invoke article 50 immediately to give himself a genuine bargaining position. No-one on the continent seriously thinks he wants to leave or will allow the public to force him to leave.

  • James

    Cameron does have a strategy and that is to lead Britain into Europe by hook or by crook.

  • FF42

    Those interested in Chinese history will recognise the “Empty Fortress Strategy” – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSIQvswk4sU

    If Mr Cameron can’t get the deal he, his party or the country wants from negotiations within the EU, he will be then have to negotiate on the way out. Under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, he gets a two year window to negotiate the best deal he can muster before Britain is ejected to the outer orbit of a standard WTO trade arrangement with the EU. He won’t have a particularly strong hand. He is likely to get a better deal on the first set of negotiations, while Britain is still a member of the EU. He will have a problem if those negotiations fall short, which is very likely on current expectations.

  • Framer

    Breaking the conservative/traditional vote in Britain into the majority ‘patriotic’ section and the high finance/noblesse oblige part will be the most drastic change in English political life for a century or more (since Gladstone broke the Liberal Party in two over Ireland and the rise of the Labour Party).
    Nothing will be the same again and electoral predictions cannot be made.

  • SnrDiplomat

    This is all a convoluted mess. The whole issue is too bloated for the average voter to follow. And then you have the armchair enthusiasts, who only want to rave about their own position. So my neighbour (busy woman) asked me whether it was true – that we were just about to leave the EU.. Her brother works in Spain, you see. “I thought the referendum was all about Scotland?” She said.

    She was about to disappear up her driveway, so I had to sum it up in 140 characters: “It’s not happening. Expect Labour to win the next election: flatline economy . And they are ideologically in favour of the EU.”

    “Is that the upshot?” she asked, “Probably,” I said, “..but it’s all very interesting”.

  • paulus

    Of course he does its called an evolving strategy, Von Clausewitz writes about it in relation to the Napoleonic armies. Nothing can be predicted only: aggression, force and seizing the initiative, will bring results.

    It is essentially a different strategy from that the Russian employed at Stalingrad and the Kursk, or even Napoleon used at Austerlitz, it is a calvery way of battle.

    In reality those who tried to force a vote against all odds, with never a chance to win have been taught a salutory lesson. It was promisory at best to call a referendum in the next Parliament, now everyone knows there cannot be one in this.

  • global city

    His original agenda was to pretend to negotiate in exactly the same way as Wilson pretended. That way he could square the circle of being a ‘sceptic’ but not rock the EU boat

  • Roy

    Before the PM does anything he needs to practice some deep thinking, some deep meditative, reflective, contemplation. While doing this he must have in front of him a printed memo: I must always remember the people who are the bedrock of the British Isle. The people who survived the two world wars. It is for these and their descendants who deserve the best, and I must not place in jeopardy their freedoms and country. Anyone found offending their freedoms and privileges will be sorted out and dealt with. No other nation or organisation will have jurisdiction over these people. I hereby declare a full investigation into the BBC and a new constitution for that body.

  • http://www.wwwbarkingspider.com/ Barking Spider

    He will renegotiate absolutely nothing – the EU will give him a few scraps and make some meaningless “concessions” so that Dodgy Dave can proclaim a great victory – a “victory” which will be every bit as disingenuous and hollow as Wilson’s was in 1975.

    Cameron is playing games with us – he’s stalling for time.

  • paulus

    Chinese war a game of chess, the best way to deal with that is adopt the policy of the Mongols have no regard for the city and just burn it as they see their home, women and children burn it will draw them out to fight. Chess is not the game to play in War,

  • http://www.facebook.com/SloggingScotsmanStewartEdwards Stewart Edwards


    Ex Tory party member, wavering LibDem voter, wants inspiring politicians who are above base human nature.


    Europe – I want to stay in, most people want out. Why do they want out? Because our government, has used Europe as one of their whipping boys to blame everything on. Some might be fair some might be diversion, but together it’s a mess.


    The public really don’t know the true costs and benefits of membership. This
    needs to change.

    Britain likes to punch with the global weight it once had. Now even President
    Obama has been pretty clear in his words and his cuddling up special
    relationship with France.Things could get mighty lonely for this nation quickly.

    The European problem is that, and I mean this with respect, European leaders
    have got it wrong. What worked for Germany is great. But the rest
    of Europe is not Germany. Different cultures don’t all react the same way to the same policies, and social hardship and in some cases meltdown has resulted. Not aided by the IMF getting its maths formulas wrong or the ideological insight proving
    now to have been based on a statistical error. And global economies are showing that when you spend and invest things get a bit better if done cautiously. After all, and this is where I agree with Germany – we don’t want hyperinflation and extremism as in the 1930s. We have avoided the former but are breeding the latter as people in Europe have enough. Pause for thought – politics is about the life of every citizen.


    Cameron needs to educate the public honestly.

    Britain needs to ask itself if isolated from the big table in Europe and consequently in America, will it be happy being a has-been in global affairs?

    The will of the people must be behind the union and that is going to be a difficult pill for any politicians with egos, pride, and so on. You got it wrong. Best of intentions and all that. But you got it wrong. It happens. Get over it and move on. I have bleated on enough elsewhere over the years on how to achieve success in this field.

    • global city

      What is this big table and massive strategic clout that the EU has, and that the UK is incapable of achieving?

      Most of the ‘big table’ stuff is vacated by the UK in order to let the EU do deals instead. Norway hasn’t lost it’s role on World affairs, so why are you helping to spread this rubbish?

      Being inside the customs union is what prevents us from engaging properly with the rest of the world, not some ill gotten competence.

      Are you really saying that the UK should throw its lot in qith a supranational initiative in order to hang on to your fallacies?

      Are you really saying that any benefits are worth the total loss of sovereignty and right to self determination?

      • http://www.facebook.com/SloggingScotsmanStewartEdwards Stewart Edwards

        Global city, remember I have been advocating an in/out vote for years now – why? Becuase for the EU to succeed now, at this moment in time, it really needs the will of the people behind it. If it can manage that it will achive great things. If it can’t well – sinking ship comes to mind. Anyhow things are suppost to be done at the lowest level they can be – so perhaps the question should be is this really happeneing?

        • global city

          I fully agree. The two fundamental points is that for the whole scheme to work it needs to will of the people of the continental countries. For this reason of legitimised integration, that is something that the UK should not be involved any further into this political integration.

    • Augustus

      “The European problem is that, and I mean this with respect, European leaders have got it wrong”

      The more problematic Europe gets, the faster types like Barroso and Schulz squeeze the accelerator towards a federal Europe. Just like a couple trying to save their marriage by quickly having children. Brussels has never really concerned itself with the will of the people. That was the big miscalculation. Without support of the people it will never truly succeed. Even a child could understand that.

      • http://www.facebook.com/SloggingScotsmanStewartEdwards Stewart Edwards

        While I would love the tob jobs myself, anyone could do them who has a wide range of life exeriences and education, what the EU really needs are people in top jobs (the strategic not necessarily the nitty gritty implementation) who can connect with the ordinary man and woman in the street, people who have been unemployed, who have worked on factory floors, stacked shelves, worked in clubs, been postmen, ran businesses and who also have professional training and worked in the global professions. That sort of perspective, which some like me have, would be invaluable at the top of the EU. Why? because we understand the big picture as well as how things not only affect the ordinary man and woman but how they are motivated. Ideally you want people who have also touched the hearts of the people as well, and who have qualifications in accountancy, economics and other fields. I can’t be the only person with such life experience and qualifications. But with people like me at the top inspiring the common man while getting the system more transparent, accountable etc, would work absolute wonders for the “EU project.” It would take a generation to do properly, but is is doable. It wold ruffle a lot of internal feathers, but the end result would be a stronger more vibrant European Union.

  • Malfleur

    Frank P
    May 18th, 2013 – 22:59

    Peter Mandelson has apparently blown the whistle on the scandal that was exposed and later retracted by Andrew Neather:


    As I am blackballed from the Spectator Blog, perhaps someone would like to stuff this link up Frasier’s jacksey for me.

    Littlejohn in non-satirical vein by the way. A hard-hitting serious
    essay. One criticism – he lays off a little too vigorously with the
    ‘hard-working immigrants who have brought prosperity to the UK’ shtick. I
    suppose he has to, in order not to be bulldozed by howls of “RACIST!”
    from the left.

    Perhaps Nelson will now keep his promise to “address the Neather issue”. I won’t be holding my breath in anticipation.


  • global city

    Funnily enough, the proof that the EU is not as vital as its supporters claim is proven…. by those very claims. For instance, martin Sorrell has just been all over the news channels touting the same old rubbish about 3.5 million jobs, inward investment would move away, EU gives us a profile in the world we could not have on our own, yadda, yadda… ALL shown to be incorrect.

    I saw Martin Sorrell counted on each and every one of these points in a Newsnight debate last year by people at the centre of the issues he goes on about, but;
    A. he still repeats then, and

    B. Being shown to be wrong so often in such a high profile environment has not impacted his companies or reputation.

    Martin Sorrell was at the centre of the ‘Business for the Euro’ campaign and he was one of the most hysteric in his claims of what would happen to the UK’s economy should we not enter the Euro…. utterly wrong again, but to no effect on his companies or reputation.

    The media still accommodate him as he repeats these innaccuracies over and over, along with the other usual europhile suspects.

    One would think that there is a media conspiracy to not question the EU and the claims made about it!

    Why has Sorrell suffered no blow to his reputation?

  • http://twitter.com/Hughmanist Hugh

    Whether or not it’s a good idea to ‘leave Europe’ , depends on where you’re going. The ‘outs’ are clueless on the direction to take. Becoming Norway without the oil and fisheries or Switzerland without being at the centre of Europe, seems pointless. Incidentally, both these countries, as the ‘no immigrants’ brigade hasn’t noticed, have huge immigrant populations.

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