Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The coalition is on life-support

“Mummy, what is that man for”? This exquisite, though probably apocryphal, comment from a small child has been variously said to be about many politicians over the years, including Herbert Asquith. But Asquith’s successor a century later, Nick Clegg, may suddenly be finding that a real and painful question, as he reflects on the wreckage of last week’s European summit.

But first, what happened: Cameron vetoed a treaty amendment on European integration, leaving the remaining countries no alternative but to set up a separate group which would implement the deal outside the EU. It was technically a veto, but only technically: it stopped nothing. The sticking point was said to be the financial transaction tax (FTT), an oddly unfair idea that a group of countries with relatively small financial sectors could jointly gang up to tax the one country which has an unseasonably large one, and which would certainly have damaged British interests. In that sense he was right to veto. Since the FTT is unfeasible without Britain, it was very likely a deliberate ploy by Sarkozy, as Ben Brogan suggests, to insist on this point which he knew Cameron could not accept, thus removing the “difficult” Cameron from the scene and clearing the way for an EU which might just have a chance of agreeing what it needed to

, this does not mean a triumph for Cameron – far from it. It is, as former Downing Street chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, told John Rentoul, “the worst foreign policy disaster in my adult lifetime”. But not because of the FTT. It is a disaster because it should never have come to this. Sarkozy took this action precisely because he knew Cameron was hamstrung and would never co-operate. Rather than the EU limping around with a British club foot, Sarkozy ruthlessly opted for amputation. But Sarkozy is no fool: he must have seen the attractions of a deal, but didn’t see it as possible.

Perhaps the smartest observation over the weekend came from the Times’ David Aaronovitch, who tweeted: “I think this another of those increasingly common mega-events no-one can usefully call”. The truth is precisely that: no-one really knows with certainty whether the EU-26 will pull off the convergence deal. They will need to move their backsides for this to work, as Tony Blair points out in this interview. But if they do, Cameron will look a fool, beholden to his swivel-eyed backbenchers. If they don’t, he will look a far-sighted sage. We simply don’t know. Yet.

Ed Miliband, of course, is left in the unenviable position of not knowing, either. So, rather than risk getting it wrong, he is forced to
fudge his answer. Inelegant, but perhaps necessary, given that he could not come down on the wrong side of an argument this important.

So where does this leave the coalition? Well, look at it this way: the Lib Dems used to standfor the three E’s: education, environment and Europe. Oh, and PR. Which have all been sold down the river respectively by (i) tuition fees, (ii) the Tories’ “put the husky to sleep” U-turns, recently highlighted by Mary Creagh MP, (iii) last week’s Euro-summit and (iv) the AV referendum, which they lost.

All the things that the Lib Dems once stood for, in short, have now been washed away in a political downpour which has left Clegg high and dry. On this summit, Clegg has done the only thing he could do: go along with Cameron’s position, then act cross about it afterwards, as he did on the
BBC on Sunday.

If, then, there is any clear lesson to be learned from last week, it must surely be this: that
the coalition cannot continue after 2015. Why? Because the remaining, long-suffering Lib Dem voters, such as they are, will surely not now wear the Tories as partners in a general election. Even if Clegg does not split his party, which seems at least a possibility, they will likely survive only as a rump which distinguishes itself from the Tories in some way. But beyond that, it makes little sense to try and predict when and where the coalition will finally collapse.

The frustrating thing for Clegg is that he is actually right, in the sense that Britain is now “marginalised” in Europe. In not just the continental but the international press in general, almost all papers led, predictably, with gleeful “Britain isolated” headlines, and that is all that most people abroad can see. Incidentally, the worrying thing is that few of these observers
seemed to be focusing on the rather more important issue of whether or not the summit achieved its aim of saving the euro, which the FT, among others, rather seemed to think that it did not. But that is another story.

On the home front, even were he not before, Clegg
is surely a lame duck now. We have seen how much sway the Lib Dems really have over the things they care about: precious little. He can no longer hide that from his voters, and politics can be a cruel business. He has a non-job holding things together as best he can for the next two-and-a-half years – though with a ministerial car, if he succeeds – and then, in all probability, either some international role, or oblivion.

His goose is not yet cooked, but the oven light has gone off and the timer’s on.

This post first published at Labour Uncut


  1. I agree that the coalition is on life support but disagree about Libs and the 3 Es. In MHO they are the sole party to care about civil liberty and human rights. Clegg is unelectable as a leader and ought to go, sooner the better. Thing is, will the Libs survive?

  2. Labour do care about these things, but see health and education as more of a priority. The Lib Dems are the other way round, but you also have to admit that this puts them at odds with the vast majority of the electorate.

    Clegg is certainly unelectable even in coalition, but why would they change him before the election? It'd be even worse, and no-one would want that poison chalice anyway.

    Will the Libs survive? Probably. They did in the Thirties. But it will take a while to get back to their original level of support, I think.

    But hey, I've been wrong before...

  3. So you are not Benedict XVI then? As to Clegg he has no rival, all the Libs are crud at the moment ( a fate they share with Labour! )
    Civil liberty became an electoral issue for the first time ever in 2010, due to Bliar-Brownism. Of course, trusting human rights to the folks who brought us Grunwick, Brixton 81, the Miner's strike..."A Tory is just a Liberal who has not been arrested yet".

  4. I am most certainly not Benedict XVI. No offence, your Holiness.

  5. Rob "I was not in the Wehrmacht" Marchant...

  6. I don't know what you've heard...? ;)


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