Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Cameron Hit by Europe....Again, and Again, and Again

The website politics.co.uk has got it right with their headline today, "The Conservative Curse: Cameron faces the Europe test." The issue that long ago became a latter day tariff reform menace has been warming up for some time to give Mr. Cameron the same unalloyed misery it passed on to predecessors John Major and Margaret Thatcher. Both were undone by Europe in the end - the converted eurosceptic and the europhile alike. Now it's back to haunt the eurosceptic but pragmatic David Cameron. His Prime Minister's Questions performance today was definitely not his finest hour, and while you might dismiss Boris Johnson's call for a referendum as just another piece of typical one-upmanship, it's a little different if your own Northern Ireland Secretary starts publically ruminating about the same issue.

When he became leader David Cameron, understanding the Curse of Europe as well as anyone, tried hard to hit it into the long grass once and for all. Part of that project was to appease the numerically far larger number of Tory eurosceptics by withdrawing from the federal right-wing party, the European People's Party. It caused a bit of a rumpus from amongst the two or three Tories who still professed some sort of attachment to Europe, but otherwise it looked like a domestically shrewd manouevre. A little bit of virtually cost-free eurosceptic action to buy a period of invaluable peace.

It worked, for a while. Europe really didn't raise its accursed head for most of Cameron's time in opposition and even in government, with a healthily eurosceptic Foreign Secretary in William Hague, it did appear as if Cameron had assuaged the beast. Fat chance. Even if the eurozone hadn't threatened an economic implosion that makes the finances of the Weimar Republic look positively sane, he should have realised the nature of the Conservative eurosceptic beast. It was never going to be satisfied with a sop, and the eurozone has given it enough red meat to keep it awake for months, probably years to come.

The heart of David Cameron's problem is that he recognises what most eurosceptics can't be bothered to acknowledge. No matter how populist and democratic the calls for people power to decide our future in Europe, there is no clear question to ask. A referendum about a treaty between 17 other European nations who have no interest in listening to Britain is no use at all. And as for the 'nuclear' option - "Do you want to stay in the European Union?" - the real problem is that no-one, on either side of the debate, has any very clear idea as to what full-scale withdrawal from all of Europe's embrace would really mean for Britain. It is a classic political timebomb. Festooned with a variety of legislative cables, some of which may well be redundant or low-level in their blast capacities, there will be one which could well explode the domestic economy sky-high. We just don't know which one. Cut them all, say the true eurosceptics, gung-ho and newly confident on the back of the eurozone difficulty, they're all bluffs. Ah, says the wise old bomb disposal expert, can we really be sure of that?

There is also the question of how much heft GB Inc will carry in the world outside the European Union, as a valiant little dependent island. One of Cameron's early decisions - his EPP withdrawal - is already coming back to haunt him, as Nick Robinson explains on his blog today. The leaders of eleven European nations are meeting in a private summit today. Not just France and Germany, even Romania and Poland will be there. Finland's going to be represented for crying out loud. But not Britain. Not David Cameron. Because he's not in the EPP club any more. And that was just a small decision. What happens when no-one wants the British prime minister at any summit because - well, because out of Europe and out on a limb he or she just doesn't matter any more.

David Cameron tried to sound decisive and eurosceptic and suitably Thatcherite in his Times article today, but the mischievous calling of 8 euro-unfriendly Tory MPs by the Speaker at PMQs this afternoon soon punctured that bubble. Of course the prime minister can't offer a referendum, much less the beginning of a process of withdrawal. Whatever the travails of the eurozone today, they remain unlikely to knock the political agenda of the European Union far off course. David Cameron, as a savvy leader, knows this perfectly well and has no intention of trying to hidebound any future international role he might want to pursue. His problem, as ever, is that in a wrathfully eurosceptic party, the only European policy the majority of his MPs, and certainly the majority of his grassroots members, want to see is one that would make UKIP utterly redundant. And hang what comes next.

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