I’m not sure ‘Fresh Start’ is quite the right name for a group of Tory MPs who are busy re-hashing what is by now a pretty hackneyed message within the Tory party. The self-proclaimed group is publishing a report calling for the repatriation of significant powers from the EU to Britain. So the same call that has been made by Tory MPs since Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech – a fresh start indeed.
Yet, of course, the group’s report remains newsworthy because David Cameron is himself entering the European maelstrom with a speech due on Friday that advance spin suggests will be redefining the British relationship with Europe and calling for a referendum on the terms of our membership. Mr. Cameron is going to complete the work that John Major began with Maastricht it seems, although Mr. Major himself had rather assumed that the Maastricht agreement was an end in itself, requiring no further finesse.
The problem for Mr. Cameron is that of the few policy positions he does hold, a vague but clear Euro-scepticism is amongst them. This is a Prime Minister held in deep suspicion by the majority right-wing of his parliamentary party, and he undoubtedly sees a new Euro-scepticism as just the sort of red meat to throw their way in order to keep them off his back over other things. He should beware. There is no beast so utterly single-minded and determined as the Euro-sceptic Tory MP, and they will not be appeased by some vague ideas about renegotiation. Neither will they be too happy about what must seem a far distant prospect of a referendum on Europe under a majority Tory administration, especially given the unlikelihood of such an event. Hatred towards Europe has become an unthinking element in the DNA of most Tory MPs, to the extent that any rational debate about it is virtually impossible, and what used to be the Tory Party’s will to power has been all but negated by the willingness of Eurosceptics to drive the party into a kamikaze approach that receives carefully expressed opprobrium from all but its own members.
Take the Obama administration. After successful visits each way between Barack Obama and David Cameron you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a transatlantic relationship built on the strongest of foundations. A harkening back to the glory days of Reagan and Thatcher. Well, in the sense that Reagan consistently belied his own rhetoric by following a US self-interest that usually denied Britain its own requirements, I suppose it is. For all the bonhomie of Cameron and Obama, the administration has not been slow in making it very clearly known that it regards Mr. Cameron’s European manouevres as unwise and potentially disastrous. A Britain isolated from Europe will not be able to rely on any special relationship with the United States. Their realpolitic views a single European unit as the most useful form of European ally. Any country standing outside of that – including Britain – will be a marginalised minnow.
And the US attitudes are nothing compared to those of powerful European countries such as Germany. Gunther Krichbaum, a key CDU ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, warned of economic disaster for Britain is she stood outside the single market. Just as British Tory euro-sceptics are vigorous and single-minded in their call for ‘renegotiation’, so most European players are equally determined that Britain cannot keep treating the EU as an a la carte menu to be picked from at will.
David Cameron is more euro-sceptic than his predecessor John Major. He also appears to be a less effective diplomat however. Andrew Rawnsley, in a thoughtful piece for the Observer on Sunday, recalled the tenacious and canny diplomacy of Mr. Major (“a gentleman” according to one of his European adversaries, Ruud Lubbers) which eventually yielded the opt-outs in the Maastricht Treaty. But, as Mr. Rawnsley reminded his readers, such opt-outs benefited Mr. Major not a whit, as he watched his 1992 election triumph dissolve into the ashes of a disastrous party war which doomed it to never, thus far, winning a majority on its own terms in parliament again.
David Cameron is not, as I’ve noted before, a leader with any deep roots in the Conservative Party. It is one of the factors that makes him such an isolated leader. But it would be foolhardy of him to think that he can ride the euro-sceptic bandwagon. Europe wins few votes amongst the British electorate to whom Mr. Cameron is answerable, but a perception that Britain is an isolated, marginal figure in world affairs does have an impact, and in appeasing his unthinking right Mr. Cameron is clearly heading in that direction. He should leave Europe alone, and look again at reinvigorating a domestic One Nation Tory policy that would have a real chance of reversing the decades long Tory electoral decline.