by Mark Stockwell
The Labour leadership has no doubt spent much of the past week slapping each other heartily on the back. Bliss is it to defeat the government on the floor of the house; to do so by outflanking them on the EU budget is very heaven.
They should enjoy this tactical victory while they can. They were aided by a lackadaisical Conservative whipping operation, and abetted by a worryingly large group of chronic malcontents on the Tory backbenches. Labour will have to work harder in the long term to persuade voters that Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander’s new-found Eurosceptic fervour would not evaporate the moment the ministerial Eurostar pulled out of St Pancras international.
Clearly, though, it is the government which faces the more pressing strategic issues.
David Cameron’s political instinct (not necessarily the same as his personal inclination) is to try as far as possible to avoid talking about Europe for fear of the “toxic” effect on the Conservative brand. This is understandable. Cameron and George Osborne cut their political teeth in the Maastricht era and that thoroughly miserable experience can’t have failed to be formative.
(I suspect this also partly explains why Labour’s own coterie of former special advisers had so little hesitation in siding with the Tory rebels. There is something of Pavlov’s dog in the way in which both sides have behaved.)
One of the benefits of coalition from Cameron’s point of view was, as Andrew Lilico has suggested at ConservativeHome, that this evasion could be sustained by a block of Lib Dem votes, acting as a counter-weight to backbench rebellions from the Tory right. Wednesday’s vote has shown that this cannot be relied on.
The headlines in the papers last Thursday were exactly the sort of thing the prime minister has been seeking to avoid. Radio 4 listeners woke up to the familiar and unedifying sound of two Conservative MPs squabbling about Europe. True, the likes of Sarah Wollaston and Tracey Crouch, rebels both, cannot be as readily demonized as the chalk-striped blazer brigade who dogged John Major’s premiership. In some ways, though, that makes Cameron’s life even harder.
In truth, the ongoing Eurozone crisis, and the emergence of a core Eurozone group, means that this approach was no longer viable in any case – the UK’s relationship with that core is going to change fundamentally, whether we like it or not. The longer the coalition persisted with its non-strategy, the more difficult its position was ultimately bound to become. By bringing the issue to a head, Labour have in some ways done the government a favour.
The blessing is undoubtedly very effectively disguised. After a party conference speech widely interpreted as attempting to reassert his modernising, “compassionate” agenda, last week’s vote has further called into question David Cameron’s authority within his own party. This is the price he has been forced to pay for entertaining the notion he could simply muddle through from one Euro-summit to the next.
It has also highlighted one of the key tensions within the coalition and forced the two governing parties to confront it at a time not of their choosing. That, too, is a penalty only to be expected for failing to do so earlier.
But confront it they now must.
It is by no means clear that the coalition can reach an accommodation on this. Nick Clegg’s opening shot, in a speech the day after the vote, was not especially helpful. He set out a vision of the UK remaining outside the Eurozone core but within an “inner circle”, and sought to present this as an alternative to renegotiating the terms of the UK’s membership.
This is a false choice, however. As Clegg himself noted, the core is “tightening” which means that the relationship between the core and the inner circle will inevitably change. There will be treaty changes – and that means negotiations. The Lib Dems could argue that this isn’t the same as “re-negotiations” but this is a distinction which I fear may be lost on anyone outside Cowley Street. At the very least, Clegg’s formula is not one which will satisfy the Conservative backbenches.
How David Cameron reacts – both to the Commons defeat and to Clegg’s speech – is clearly critical. He’s the prime minister, after all, and that still means he gets to call at least some of the shots. But his options are limited.
He can’t afford entirely to ignore the threat from UKIP and the strength of feeling within his own party. It’s not obvious that on this issue he particularly wants to. But he needs to keep the Lib Dems onside for the time being and it may be that, as some have suggested, last week’s experience will make him all the keener to embrace coalition politics in order to avoid being held to ransom forever by his own party’s right wing.
As he wrestles with this strategic dilemma, the prime minister must be wishing he’d faced up to it rather sooner.
Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs