Cameron and the EPP: on the road to nowhere

by Stephen Tall on June 13, 2006

Nine months ago, back when few had heard of David Cameron, his Tory leadership campaign was spluttering to a halt: all the talk was of a Ken Clarke versus David Davis showdown.

Mr Cameron and his team knew they had to do something, and do it fast. But what? It needed to be a touchstone issue, something which would grab Tory MPs by the short ‘n’ curlies, a piercing ‘dog whistle’: it had to be Europe – which, to most Tory minds, conjures up dystopian images that would have made even Dante blanch.

Their ruse was to withdraw British Conservative MEPs from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) on the grounds that some of its members, such as Germany’s Christian Democrats, support a federalist agenda. Under a Cameron leadership Tory MEPs would sit only with non-federalists.

Then came the Tories’ ‘Pop Idol’ conference, and ‘Dave’ won the audience vote. Indeed, he won it so decisively it soon became clear his concession to those right-wing Europhobic MPs he had earlier been so desperate to court was quite unnecessary. But still Mr Cameron stuck by his pledge: a policy commitment is a policy commitment (especially if it’s your only one).

If it had been quietly dropped, barely anyone would have raised an eyebrow. It is, after all, a technical issue about voting blocs in the European Parliament: it is hardly the Dreyfus Affair. This is something Mr Cameron himself has accepted, albeit tetchily; Rachel Sylvester, writing in today’s Torygraph, recalls:

When Alice Thomson and I last interviewed him, about three months ago, we mentioned, in passing, his commitment to pull his MEPs out of the European People’s Party.

In return we got an absolute diatribe. “Can we please not talk about the EPP?” he barked, with genuine anger in his voice. “I’m sick to death of the EPP. It’s so boring.”

So the warning lights were flashing even then. But still Mr Cameron ploughs ahead with a policy which has split his MEPs down the middle, and antagonised the two centre-right European leaders who are likely to dominate the political stage in the next five years: Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and France’s President-presumptive, Nicolas Sarkozy.

He has left his Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, scrabbling around for someone, anyone, who will join with the Euro Tories and ensure they don’t become an impotent, inconsequential irrelevance at the decision-making margins. The most likely candidates, to date, are not the kind of company the supposedly New Tory Party would like to be seen out with: they are ultra-nationalists, often with sexist and homophobic prejudices.

So how has this silly little squabble come to pass? Why has someone as apparently astute as Mr Cameron allowed an unimportant issue like this to sour his current honeymoon? It could be, of course, that Mr Cameron harbours deeply Eurosceptic beliefs, and is simply following his compass.

Philip Stephens, in today’s Financial Times, posits an alternative theory:

I am not sure how deep [David Cameron’s] doubts run. What is clear is that foreign policy is not his strong suit. He has not travelled widely and has met precious few political leaders from overseas. It shows. Mr Cameron has been heard to refer to one such meeting as being with the president of “Czechoslovakia”. Gaps like that, though deeply embarrassing, can be filled.

To leave the EPP would display a more profound lack of understanding. The prospect of a European superstate exists now only in the recurring nightmares of the europhobes. The task for serious European politicians during the next five or 10 years will be to forge a new concordat between nation states, the Union and globalisation. Many of the elements of this new bargain will be attractive to Britain. A modern Conservative party, free of the demons of the past, could make a substantial contribution. It is that or the fruitcakes [of Ukip].

Mr Cameron’s EPP kerfuffle is small beer. But it reveals two wider problems, about his leadership, and the Tory Party.

First, this issue – of zero importance to the vast majority of Britons – has already occupied far too much of Mr Cameron’s and Mr Hague’s attention. If they aspire to govern, they need to set priorities that will benefit the country, not spend their first six months sorting out an internal party mess caused by an over-hasty promise by a young man in a hurry.

Secondly, with the EU constitution dormant and forgotten, the Tories have yet to grasp the opportunity to drive the new European agenda in the direction they would wish it to go. Mr Cameron should be using this time to work closely with Ms Merkel (and perhaps Mr Sarkozy) to forge a new consensus which promotes the liberal economy across Europe’s nation states, battling against protectionism and over-regulation. Instead, he has become distracted by his attempts to pacify his own party.

For all the Tories’ present optimism – and for all Mr Cameron’s smoothness – the new leader’s failure to draw the curtain down on this side-show suggests he has yet to work out what his vision of Britain’s role in Europe should be.

The road is going to seem a lot bumpier if he doesn’t know where he’s heading.