Last week, David Cameron had a bad week. But it’s important to understand what kind of a bad week. He’s had not a defeat, but a sour victory in the Commons against his own rebels; but so did Tony Blair on two memorable occasions – Iraq and tuition fees – when he feared he might have to resign, and didn’t. These things, although nerve-wracking at the time, are to some extent part and parcel of being a prime minister.
The extent of the defeat, though large, was rather to be expected over an issue as touchy as Europe and the relative weakness of his electoral position. However, neither does his government look “in office but not in power”, as Norman Lamont described the Major government. And his rebuke by Sarkozy for trying to interfere in a subject, the euro, which Britain long ago put on the long finger its joining up, was also to be expected. Many have criticized his handling of the Commons vote, saying that he was looking for a fight; but it is hardly his fault that half of his backbenchers defy rationality on this subject. And some believe that, despite the bad headlines, he called it right.
On top of all this, on a much more important subject he knows that, economically, things aren’t looking great. But, if he needs to, he’ll sit down with Osborne and they’ll cook up some way to change plan A into plan A+ without anyone noticing too much.
In any event, these are the immediate concerns, and Cameron excels in the tactical. No, oddly, the recurring dream that is waking him up, sweating, in the middle of the night, is another. Something which surely does not exercise Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg in the slightest: it’s that this is a taste of what the future holds for him on Europe. The story is a variation on one well-known from his classical education. He is running through the Trojan forest, chased by the bigbête noire, with a spear and – thwack! – he feels the hit in the back of the heel and hears only a distance voice murmuring, “beware the Greeks…” as he loses consciousness. Yes, Cameron is surely aware that the Achilles comparisons come easily to almost every Tory leader on this subject.
For example, Hugo Young observed of MacMillan that he was “only the first of a long line of Conservative politicians broken on the wheel of Europe”. Cameron is too smart not to know this. The trick for him is to make it through his premiership avoiding the Brussels bear-traps.
In the last half-century, ignoring the one-year reign of Alec Douglas-Home, there has only been one Tory Prime Minister whom Europe did not break: Thatcher. MacMillan, Heath and Major all had nasty experiences. MacMillan’s career was effectively ended by his unsuccessful application to join the EEC; Heath’s was seriously set back by the same failure, although he managed to recover, but modern-day Tories revile him anyway for being the most pro-Europe premier ever; and finally, Major was destroyed by his Eurosceptic opponents within the party and Britain’s disastrous Black Wednesday exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism. In addition to all of this, during the leadership of William Hague, the first Tory leader in seventy years not to become Prime Minister, the Tories’ obsession with sovereignty and their scaremongering about the loss of the pound was to make them look extremist and unelectable for several more years, around the turn of the millennium.
Cameron has, till now, done the smart thing for any Tory leader: he has avoided the subject. He cannot avoid it forever, as the last week has shown. He may well yet, as someone recently observed, find that the idea of petitions being debated in Parliament is his Freedom Of Information moment: the moment when he innocently supported what he thought would be a difficult-to-argue with democratic idea, only to find that it opened the door to a nightmare.
But it is no longer Europhiles versus Euro-sceptics, as it was in the 90s. The Europhiles are an endangered species. The debate has all moved to the right, and become madder: it is pull out altogether on the one hand; versus, on the other, stay in but still on the margins. Cameron is no Europhile, far from it: he is simply a person who realises, having seen the larger worldview that a prime minister has, that pulling out would be utter madness. The argument, in short, has moved from integration versus not, to pulling out versus not.
The Tory Eurosceptic argument is based on a fatal misconception: that, after 40-odd years of battering by the Murdoch press, the British public has become as rampantly anti-EU as they are. They are not. They are, as John Rentoul puts it, “grumpy” about Europe. They do not instinctively gel with it, as the Germans, French or Benelux do (although that is changing, too, as they now realize they have been subsidizing low interest rates to fiscally incontinent, debt-loving economies across Europe).
But neither do they really prioritise it as much as other things in their lives, especially in the middle of a nasty period of austerity. And it’s impossible to get any sense out of anyone on the subject, once they fall into the Euro-black hole. The nicest, most rational right-wing journalists and Tory backbenchers just start frothing at the mouth when the subject is mentioned. AsMartin Kettle nicely puts it in the Guardian, “all political parties risk falling prey to their own mythologies about the voters”. And he goes on to say that the Tories' Euro-obsession could yet cost them the next election.
What it does underline is that Cameron is not a strong leader in an electoral sense. It has been easy to forget, with a low-profile Labour Party still licking its wounds, that Cameron is not at all lord of all he surveys, although, like the well-bred chap he is, he does a good, airy impression ofnoblesse oblige. It is easy to believe his propaganda. But this, Europe, is his particular weak point. This is where, like many before him, he has most chance of coming unstuck. The question is for Labour: are we ready for him?
It is also likely that, as the economy recovers, he will grow in political power as the Tories realize that a second term may well be in reach and Cameron’s power of patronage extends. But, even if he has played this as well as he might have done, which is not at all clear, he is unlikely to suture effectively the deep wound that Europe cut a long time ago in the Conservative body politic. And, going on previous precedents, it will most likely do for his leadership at some point.
After all, Europe is not going anywhere. Calais will still, frustratingly for him, be the exact same distance away from Dover in five or ten years’ time, and his backbenchers will still be as irrational as ever on the subject.
And when that time comes, we should be ready.