The Coalition has never been stronger
Reports of the demise of the UK’s coalition are greatly exaggerated writes our UK Political Editor Harry Cole
One thing that united the swivel-eyed, frothing Europhiles with their more pragmatic colleagues across the political system last Friday was a genuine sense of shock.
There was mutiny in the air as the Prime Minister went to Europe; the country is used to our leaders swanning off across the continent and being mugged, but David Cameron’s veto has left him in his strongest position as leader yet. Though they are making noise, there is very little his enemies can do to detract from this in the short-term.
The Conservative Prime Minister has neutered the Liberal Democrats in his government and Christmas has come early, not only for his backbenchers, but the growing number of Euro-realists in his Cabinet and close coterie of advisers too. There are more Eurosceptic Members of Parliament than pro-European Liberal Democrats, and finally the concerns of their constituents about the European project are being listened to.
For the opposition frontbenchers there was a fair amount of anger thrown in for good measure. The simplicity with which Cameron stood up his fellow leaders has left Labour with a huge credibility overdraft.
Suddenly all those summits that saw Blair and the Brown limp home, buttered up, singing from the doomed hymn-sheet, when in reality that had been filleted and served up as tartare, look even more pathetic now. How they willingly gave up our rebate, further sovereignty and even our hard cash, for the briefest tickle of the European tummy, firmly places them on the wrong side of history.
However, as with so many issues of modern UK government, Labour barely feature in the debate given the real opposition in this country share the ministerial limos. Labour can hark on all they want about debating tactics, but the public are not foolish enough to believe the spin that Ed Miliband would have somehow negotiated a better deal. He can’t even negotiate with his own brother and if he thinks Britain should have signed the deal on the table, then he is not fit to run a bath, let alone the country.
So what of the opposition -- Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats? Well they are devastated, but also locked in to this government, neutered by their own poll-standing and certain decimation were they to face a public vote.
When you look at what the Liberal Democrats really believe, you begin to understand the pain and sense of loss they must be feeling now:
“Watching Germany rise from its knees after the war and become a vastly more prosperous nation has not been easy on the febrile British psyche. All nations have a cross to bear, and none more so than Germany with its memories of Nazism. But the British cross is more insidious still. A misplaced sense of superiority, sustained by delusions of grandeur and a tenacious obsession with the last war, is much harder to shake off. We need to be put back in our place.”
So said a young Liberal Democrat MEP called Nick Clegg, who was already being tipped for great things in 2002.
Like Blair before him, Clegg would have been first in line to lock us into a doomed project. He is blinded by a backward ideology that binds him to the EU, to the detriment of the UK’s national interest, because he wants to believe.
Though he is on the more sensible wing of his party, his 2002 article is a chilling insight in to his willingness undermine his country. He tried to act in the national interest by initially backing the Prime Minister, but his bearded party elders have clearly have different ideas.
There was fury when Clegg appeared to back the decision on Friday morning, and once again we have seen a major backtrack. It began with his aides dripping poison across their friendly papers, against the spirit and letter of the Special Advisers code, and culminated with the inglorious image of the Deputy Prime Minister having to personally take to the Sunday morning chat shows to distance himself from a decision that was nothing to do with him in the first place.
"A Britain which leaves the EU would be irrelevant in Washington and a pygmy in the world" Mr Clegg told the BBC. Irrelevant pygmies being an analogy close to his own heart.
It’s times like this that the true colours of the coalition show through. Clegg can give speeches and announce consultations until the cows come home. He can mess around with press releases, do just enough tinkering with reforms to buy the required votes in parliament, but when it comes to the big-boy league, the insignificance of his largely ceremonial position in the government is laid bare.
The Liberals are the ones blocking a referendum on the European issue, something that would settle the issue once and for all. But they will have to deal with the consequences of their stubborn devotion to the EU dream.
There will be a referendum one day due to the “triple lock legislation”, that the Liberals backed, that ensures any further collaborating with the Europe would require a plebiscite. They should be careful about getting too upset or they will run out of steam and moral indignation for the much bigger fight about Britain's relationship with Europe that is now seemingly inevitable.
Though he did good, the Prime Minister isn’t home and dry yet. He doesn’t want a referendum now; it would destroy his first term. The veto was the “least worst option” (excuse the mangled English, but that's how his people described it on Friday evening.) This win is more symbolic than anything else and it’s vital to note that Cameron did not repatriate any powers, but he certainly put up a good defence of a further land-grab.
Cameron has bought some breathing space, he’s locked in his backbenchers, he’s locked in the country - polls range from 57 percent – 63 percent in support of the move - and he’s proven his mettle in the eyes of the technocrats.
The Guardian, the Foreign Office, the BBC, and Channel Four are furious. As they were that we didn’t join the Euro in the first place. Cameron is in a good place for the time being, but the crisis isn't over and it's looking increasingly likely the EU, as Britain knows it, is nearly over.
My generation's Berlin Wall moment suddenly doesn't feel such a distant dream.
Second to a referendum, a general election would settle this, but that’s not going to happen yet either. The Liberals don’t want to go to their death at the polls and the Prime Minister knows this. He doesn’t want to go until after the constituency boundaries have been redrawn and Labour’s inbuilt 7 percent head start removed. After a tantrum today and through the week, the coalition will plod on.
Andrew Marr hit the nail on the head when he told the Deputy Prime Minister "you sound like you're upset, you're angry but you know there's nothing you can do about it". The Prime Minister has got his party behind him again and the Liberal Democrats completely over a barrel.
Despite being on the wrong side of the argument - they will huff and they will puff, and there will be tears before bedtime - in reality, Cameron’s grip over his coalition has never been stronger. Though nor have the stakes ever been higher.
Harry Cole The Commentator's UK Politics Editor and the news editor for the Guido Fawkes blog
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