David Cameron’s a hostage to his party and the right-wing press. Thank goodness for Nick Clegg

by Stephen Tall on December 12, 2011

The shockwaves from David Cameron’s decision to reject the proposed ‘Merkozy’ EU treaty is still shaking politics. The UK stands isolated from the other 26 member states. Tory Eurosceptics and, early polls suggest, a majority of the British public think the Prime Minister has played a blinder, ‘sticking up for Britain’.

This is difficult territory for the Lib Dems. Our October survey of party members suggested a more Eurosceptical attitude than traditionally associated with the party, with 51% rejecting a move towards ever closer union.

However, there is nothing more guaranteed to put up liberals’ backs than the full-throated, triumphalist roar of jingoistic isolationism that has gushed forth from the Tories’ more headbanging MPs and their newspaper cronies.

I am an internationalist rather than a Europhile: the EU is flawed, often protectionist, frequently anti-democratic. But I believe the UK should be reforming from within. The Tories would rather walk away.

David Cameron’s plight

I have some sympathy for Cameron. Such is the myopia of the current anti-Europe-at-all-costs Tory party he had little room for manouevre; any form of treaty would have provoked a huge row. Just as John Major was before him, so is David Cameron a hostage to his party. And I think the case he was making, albeit from a UK-centric position — that the proposed treaty would have left national governments with too little power to determine their own economic futures — was the right one.

Where I lose sympathy is that Cameron has clearly had little interest in building alliances within Europe, to lead through influence rather than brinkmanship. This all started from his foolishly populist decision to withdraw the Tories from the centre-right European People’s Party grouping: it set him on a collision course with those, such as Germany’s Angela Merkel, who should be his natural allies.

He has done little since to try and correct this course, driving a bigger wedge between the UK and the rest of Europe. Cameron and his backward-looking, flag-waving party believe the UK is big enough and strong enough to go it alone. They are deluded. In an ever-more inter-connected globalised world, trade, negotiation and cooperation are crucial to all countries’ futures.

What Nick can do next

The case against Nick Clegg is this: he was sidelined by David Cameron in the negotiations until woken at 4am last Friday to be informed the Tory prime minister had used his veto; he initially welcomed the decision; and then flip-flopped when he realised how unpopular such a view is among the party’s leading lights, and denounced the Prime Minister.

It’s not a case that stands up to scrutiny. Nick Clegg has been actively using his extensive European connections to try and win the best deal for the UK, as the Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley notes here:

[Nick Clegg] had done his best to help. In the weeks running up to the summit, Nick Clegg had worked very hard behind the scenes to try to find a navigable passage between the pressure on the prime minister from the Tory party and the agenda of European leaders. According to allies, the Lib Dem leader “talked down” the prime minister from making impossibilist demands at the summit. At the same time, Mr Clegg tried to impress on European leaders the difficulties Mr Cameron had with managing his party. The deputy prime minister talked to a number of important liberal and centre-right politicians in the EU and made an unpublicised trip to Madrid to try to butter up the new Spanish prime minister.

Despite Nick’s best efforts, Cameron’s isolation has left the UK out in the cold, an outcome the Lib Dem leader yesterday said left him “bitterly disappointed” (which the media have cheerfully misreported as if Nick were delivering his opinion of the PM’s performance).

For all the right-wing press talks Nick up as an unpatriotic Euro-federalist, the truth is he’s very much a Euro-realist, often sceptical of the EU’s institutions (as his contribution to The Orange Book made clear). And never before has the UK needed a leader who can inject some realism into this debate to ensure that our country isn’t dragged further to the rightward margins of relevance by a combination of frothing newspapers and cheerleading Tory MPs.

Let’s remember what this was all supposed to be about

The summit last week was not about the UK’s membership of the European Union: it was about solving a financial crisis which threatens all our economies. If the Eurozone sinks there will be many Tories cheering; yet the reality for people’s livelihoods in the UK and beyond will be dire. As Mark Pack pointed out here on LibDemVoice yesterday:

If the summit’s fiscal deal works and saves the Euro, that will continue the trend towards Britain being the outsider, but avoiding economic meltdown on the continent will be good news for our own economy. If the deal fails, then Cameron’s unwillingness to back it will look better, but the cost to the British economy will be great.

The summit appears to be yet another attempt to paper over the financial cracks in the Eurozone’s economy. It’s as unlikely to work as its predecessors’ efforts were. I am not therefore going to shed any tears that the UK refused to sign-up to it. But it’s a crying shame that the UK isn’t trying to lead from within, that it won’t sit down with our trading partners and neighbours and calmly and maturely try and get a better deal — for the sake of the UK as well as the Eurozone.