It’s always bloody Europe. It was Europe (specifically, Tory splits over Britain’s relationship with the EU) that finally did in Mrs. Thatcher, and it did in poor John Major too. Now it is beginning to look like David Cameron might eventually go the same way, felled by the issue he has tried to dodge since becoming party leader in 2005. To borrow his phrase from the following year, “banging on” about Brussels was over. Saving the planet was in.
But the elephant was still in the room, increasingly intrusive, increasingly destructive, and increasingly unwanted. Britons have never truly warmed to the EU, but a 2009 poll showing that more than half of them wanted out was just one more sign that resigned exasperation was at last giving way to something more determined. With the economic crisis drawing attention away from the Conservatives’ divisive past and onto the ruling Labour party’s dismal present, some carefully calibrated Brussels bashing would have been a smart way for Cameron both to score points against a notoriously europhile government and, no less important, to calm a restive (and euroskeptic) Conservative base dismayed by their leader’s often clumsy attempts to reboot the party’s image. It was an opportunity Cameron largely ignored, preferring to stay in his comfort zone and sing the old tunes that had worked so well. Carbon menace!
Many voters weren’t impressed. In the 2009 European Parliament elections, the euroskeptic—and distinctly maverick—UKIP (the United Kingdom Independence party) beat Labour into second place behind the Tories, grabbing 16.5 percent of the vote, up a sliver from the already remarkable 16.1 percent scooped up in 2004. It was a humiliation for Labour but a warning for the Conservatives. Less than 12 months before a crucial general election, the Tories who had flocked to UKIP’s side had not come home. A commitment from Cameron to hold a referendum on the EU’s pending Lisbon Treaty—if he was elected before it was in force—reassured few. Rightly so: The treaty came into effect ahead of the election. The Conservatives dropped their referendum.
It may be a coincidence that it was from roughly this point that the Tories struggled to retain a clear lead at the polls. What cannot be denied is that UKIP won enough votes in enough constituencies to deprive the Conservatives of an absolute majority in the 2010 general election. Rather than shoot for a minority government (the bolder, better course), Cameron opted for a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the most europhile of all Britain’s major parties. The irony was obvious. The self-inflicted wound has taken a little longer to become visible.
With the keys to 10 Downing Street so close, Cameron’s choice can perhaps be forgiven. The same cannot be said of his reluctance to take a more aggressively euroskeptic tack in the years that have followed. The constraints of coalition have something to do with it, naturally, as do memories of earlier Tory disaster. Nevertheless, with the woes of the euro—a dangerous experiment lauded by many in the Labour party and by the Liberal Democrats—both unnerving the electorate and vindicating those squabbling Conservatives, it ought to be a time to make hay. But that’s not what Cameron has done.
And the chances thrown away may not just be domestic. As things stand, the currency union’s nervous breakdown offers the only remotely realistic prospect of a successful renegotiation of the U.K.’s position in the EU along lines that most Britons, including (he claims) Cameron, really want—to remain in the club, but less so. That’s because any credible long-term fix for the eurozone is likely to involve amendments to the EU’s governing treaty. That would need the approval of all member states including the U.K. That in turn might give Cameron the leverage he would need to secure all the other member states’ agreement to the treaty changes that would be required to accommodate the U.K.’s EU lite.
It’s not going to happen. Holding the global financial system ransom (and that’s how it would be portrayed) is a gamble too far, particularly for the prime minister of the country that hosts that hub of international finance, the City of London, and even more so when that same prime minister is unwilling to risk a breach with his Liberal Democrat partners.
It’s possible—just—to see the current approach as one of accidentally masterful inactivity. If the 17 eurozone countries are permitted to merge into a politically united core within a broader “multi-speed” EU, that could leave Britain to its own devices in a more congenial outer-EU. But you’d have to be very naïve to believe in such an outcome. All 27 EU countries would still be trapped within a European project that is explicitly set up to grind relentlessly forward (“ever closer union”). The speeds might differ, the direction would not.
If that’s to change, there will have to be treaty changes of the type that Cameron, pleading crisis and coalition, has not begun to attempt to renegotiate or, for that matter, even design. To be fair, his government has passed legislation designed to subject any future significant transfer of powers to Brussels to a referendum, a step almost unthinkable a few years ago. It was a start (and one day it may trigger a necessary confrontation), but the suspicion with which the new law was greeted by euroskeptics (because of the loopholes lurking within it) was yet another sign of how estranged Cameron has become from those who should be his party’s natural supporters.
That estrangement has been sharpened by a series of recent blunders. One of the biggest was an effort last October to browbeat Tory MPs into voting against a largely symbolic motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership in the EU. The motion had no hope of passing, but Cameron’s rather telling overreaction helped provoke a massive revolt within his parliamentary party, a revolt that goes some way to explaining the prime minister’s decision to keep the U.K. out of the fiscal pact cooked up by Merkel and Sarkozy in December.
The goodwill generated by that faint flicker of the bulldog spirit has since been squandered with characteristic carelessness of euroskeptic sensibilities. Cameron may have respectable, even euroskeptic, reasons for rejecting a referendum just now, but to argue (as his spokesman did in June) that there was “no popular support” for an immediate referendum at a time when half the voters were telling the pollsters they wanted just that (another third wanted one “in the next few years”) was not only inaccurate but, politically speaking, nuts: Cameron is lucky that Labour remains unenthusiastic about such a vote.
Even nuttier, and much more damaging, was his subsequent observation that he would “never” campaign for the U.K. to quit the EU. Again, there can be good reasons for a “practical euroskeptic” (as Cameron styles himself) to oppose an in/out referendum, not least the danger that, faced with a stark decision (made, doubtless, to seem even starker by big business), the electorate might well “keep ahold of nurse / For fear of finding something worse.” Read that way, opposition to such a vote is a question of tactics, not principle.
But by going further—and in such categorical terms—Cameron shredded the shreds of his euroskeptic credibility for no evident reward other than, perhaps, a smattering of the bien-pensant applause he treasures for reasons, sadly, other than cynical political calculation. How now was he supposed to be able to renegotiate a better deal with the EU? With the threat of a British withdrawal removed (quite a few EU countries still want the U.K. to stick around) and the idea of vetoing closer eurozone integration long off the table, it’s unclear what cards the prime minister would have left to play. “Practical” euroskepticism looks to be not so very practical after all.
The inescapable logic, for euroskeptics, points to an in/out referendum, followed, in the event of an “out” vote, by a total recasting of Britain’s relationship with Brussels, as the country begins the withdrawal process provided for under the EU treaty. That’s not what they will get. The best guess, amongst a bewildering range of scenarios, is that at the next general election (due in 2015) the Conservatives will guarantee a referendum on whatever feeble deal Cameron, reelected and freed from the chains of coalition, might (fingers crossed) manage to extract from the EU. Will that lure enough UKIP Tories back to the fold?
It’s unlikely, not least because there will probably be more of them than in 2010 (the 2014 elections to the European Parliament should add to UKIP’s momentum). The chances of a Conservative majority in 2015 thus appear (in the absence of an intervening economic miracle) slight. Instead the odds must be that Labour will be back in power, in which case there will be no renegotiations with Brussels, and that will be that.
What was that slogan about a roach motel?
Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.