I have to confess to a fundamental political mistake. It is one that I know many others, of all parties and none, will have made and will now be wrestling over with their conscience. But that does not make the admission any easier.
My sin is to have believed that government would be good for the Conservatives in one very clear sense: they would switch from being anti-Europeans to pragmatic Euro-realists. I suspect almost all Liberal Democrats thought the same and for that reason they were willing to let Tories get their hands on all the levers – Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary, Europe Minister – that controlled British interaction with the EU.
All of us who thought that way were plainly wrong. For a long time, of course, we looked as though we were right. There was even a time where it looked possible, even if not probable, that David Cameron would take Britain’s Conservatives back into the EPP, the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, and end his alliance with the collection of nationalists and odd-balls that is the so-called European Conservatives and Reformists.
But in the early hours of Friday David Cameron proved we had made a misjudgement of a spectacular proportion. The Prime Minister vetoed a European Treaty proposal designed to solve the EU’s greatest crisis since its foundation and seemed utterly undaunted by the fact this left him completely alone and almost certainly devoid of any influence beyond the ability to block progress on the small number of issues over which Britain has a veto power. Britain may still be a formal member state of the EU, but may be increasingly treated like an embarrassing relative locked in the Brussels attic.
That David Cameron has done this because he seems more afraid of short-term rows with his backbenchers than to battle for the long-term interests of Britain only serves to emphasise just how badly we all got him wrong.
More than ever the coalition in Britain looks live a loveless marriage where the partners publicly humiliate one another yet cling together for the fear of going it alone. It seems impossible, though, that things can really go on as they are between now and 2015.
Technically there are enough Liberal Democrats on the government pay roll to give the coalition a bare majority in the House of Commons. Even if the parties never formally divorce the sense that the Liberal Democrats are part of the coalition is likely to be ever weaker in the months ahead: I just cannot see the average Lib Dem MP having the stomach to defend David Cameron’s lurch towards the EU exit door.
The result will be a government moving slowly but surely ever more steadily to the right: unable or unwilling to resign and yet deeply frustrated, Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander, Michael Moore and Chris Huhne will find themselves playing the same role around the Cabinet table as David Cameron and his ministers will in Brussels: seen, heard, tolerated but ignored.
A wiser man than David Cameron, who once sought to lead his party to the centre but abandoned the idea as internal resistance grew, would likely regard this as in need of early corrective action. But with plaudits from the press and a likely short-term bump in the polls, Cameron may just be dreaming of a way he can make the coalition collapse without it looking like his fault: an election today would surely produce a Tory majority, a Liberal Democrat wipe-out and a Labour Party weakened by Nationalist advance in Scotland.
But, and this is intuition rather than deeper insight, in the long-term this weekend may appear be a disaster for Britain’s economy, British influence and even for the Conservative Party. If our continental partners decide that our views on how the European single market should develop are worthless there is no obvious direction for Britain to go in. The Empire is long gone and citing examples such as Norway or Switzerland misses the point that both these countries slavishly follow the single market’s rules without having any say over them.
As Sir John Major – whose support for the Maastricht treaty showed him to be a braver man than Cameron – might have said, being lionised by Bill Cash doesn’t butter many parsnips.
Adrian McMenamin, Director, Centreground Political Communications
(Hat tip to @TimMontgomerie for the montage of this morning’s newspapers)
- EU Treaty: what next for David Cameron and the UK? (telegraph.co.uk)
- The EU leaves Britain (independent.co.uk)
- Liberal Democrats say David Cameron “has betrayed Britain”. Trouble ahead for the Coalition? (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
- Coalition rift widens as Tories rejoice (independent.co.uk)
- Clegg defends Cameron’s use of veto (guardian.co.uk)
- EU Treaty: after a feat close to genius, David Cameron’s status is now as high as it has ever been (telegraph.co.uk)
- Why the Tory right no longer trusts David Cameron on Europe (guardian.co.uk)