9 November 2015

Is David Cameron heading for an era-defining disaster on the EU?


It is baffling that David Cameron is not considered more interesting. Perhaps it is the smoothness of his manner, which also makes him ‎impossible for comedians or impressionists to imitate, that leads people to think of him as somehow bland. There are no sharp edges. There is nothing angular about him. He has few personal ticks for critics to latch on to. Cameron is just there, gliding on year after year, smoothly doing his job before occasionally getting into scrapes, when he realises almost too late that he is in trouble.

Yet by any reasonable measure, Cameron is one of the most successful British leaders of modern times. His party was an electoral joke for the decade before he became leader. The Tories were wrecked. And yet he got to Number 10, by the skin of his teeth the first time, and with a majority the second time. A party that had been written off as past it was back, led into the future by a confident old Etonian.

Not only that, Cameron is a fascinating character. He has not been driven mad by the job, as can happen to Prime Ministers. When it is all over he won’t, I suspect, want to be a rootless globetrotter. His wife, Samantha Cameron, will start her own business and they’ll prosper. He’ll do some Big Society work, sit on a board or two, buy a nice house in Oxfordshire, go for a pint, have a snooze and send his son to Eton.

In policy terms, Cameron is something of a puzzle. He’s not ideological – he’s an unstuffy shires Tory – yet he has confounded those who say he believes in nothing, by unleashing an education and welfare revolution. One can say he should not have done it, or that he should have gone further, but he has been incontestably consequential.

He also has a gift for getting out of those scrapes at the last moment, whether it was in his A-levels, cramming in revision for his degree, winning the Tory leadership with a late push and a defining speech, or saving the UK in the final weeks of the Scottish referendum.

The 2015 general election does not fit that pattern, which suggests he has the capacity for self-improvement. He realised the 2010 campaign had been a mess, which was his fault for not picking a strategy and message, and he decided not to make the same mistake again. Lynton Crosby was hired and put together a highly impressive operation that won.

Now, six months later and with Labour destroying itself, Cameron should be basking. But he is not, and that is because of Europe, which presents him with his most taxing challenge yet.

His record suggests he will find a way through the EU referendum. The EU will concede more than we think, it is sometimes said. The voters aren’t tuned in to the debate, and perhaps when they are inertia and fear will win the day for the In crowd.

Maybe all that is true, and an entertaining campaign (for journalists) will culminate in a frenzied fortnight with Cameron appealing successfully to the quiet people who won him the general election.

But the mounting panic on the In side makes me wonder. There are hysterical warnings from Inners about the looming end of the world if the UK votes to leave the latest poorly designed European political structure that is anyway hardly predestined to ensure for eternity.

This week Cameron has made a speech stressing how serious the situation is and on Tuesday a letter will go to the President of the European Council, finally laying out the UK government’s renegotiation demands. It appears that this will be very much a greatest hits package. We’ve heard all the tunes before, such as the Four Year EU Migrant Benefit Restriction Blues. And the Ever Closer Union Shuffle.

It is dawning that if this diplomatic effort and referendum do not work, Cameron will have presided over one of the worst peacetime foreign policy cock-ups in British history. It merits that description not because leaving would be the end of the world (it wouldn’t) but purely in terms of him and the political and business machine ending up achieving precisely the opposite outcome to that intended.‎ The orthodoxy and the Establishment  would have suffered an epic defeat, for which Cameron would get a great deal of the blame.

The strategy – if it was ever that rather than a series of tactical plays with no goal other than electoral calculation in mind – would have failed miserably. Four years ago, when the British might have been trying to redesign the EU into a proper two-speed outfit post-Eurozone crisis, touring capitals and explaining the case, the Foreign Office and Number 10 were anxious just for it all to go away. After Cameron’s excellent Bloomberg speech, which did give the Tories a clear position around which to unite, almost nothing of substance followed.

It may be that the Tory leadership never expected to be here, with an overall majority, having to conduct a full renegotiation and fight a referendum it would rather avoid. But here is where they are, and what a scrape they are in this time. Short of changing sides (not impossible but a remote possibility) Cameron is stuck defending a precarious position, hoping the migrant catastrophe goes away and voters don’t register awkward realities such as the UK giving the EU around £350m every week.

It will be tough. It is getting nasty. And just because the Tory leader has got out of trouble so many times before, does not mean he always will. Most leaders lose one way or another in the end.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX