If Labour wanted evidence of how difficult they will find it to outflank the Tories on Europe, it was there for them today during prime minister’s questions. This afternoon’s debate, during which Tory rebels will vote to push the government into backing a cut in the EU budget, seemed to offer the Labour leader a golden opportunity to embarrass Cameron in front of his own backbenches.
But the ploy failed. As Miliband attacked on why the PM didn’t back a cut in the budget, Cameron hit back, criticising the Labour leader of opportunism:
The whole country will see through what is rank opportunism… Labour gave away half our rebate in one negotiation. Today, they haven’t even put down their own resolution on this issue.
I wrote a few weeks ago that the number one priority of those at the heart of the coalition, and especially those close to Nick Clegg, was not to have a referendum on Europe. But there are people on his side who think the Lib Dem leader should effectively call the Eurosceptics’ bluff and back a referendum, not just on any new European treaty, but on the UK’s very membership of the union. It is an argument even Clegg used to advance.
Philip Stephens, the FT’s chief political commentator, made this call a few weeks ago in a provocative column (at least for a europhile) entitled Britain’s eurosceptics are right to call for a referendum. In it he argued:
Barring a euro break-up, Britain and its partners are now set on different courses. At some point the divergence will become unsustainable. The Tory sceptics may be right after all. There is a case for an in-or-out referendum. My guess is the sceptics would be sorely disappointed by the outcome. The voters are realists. Much as Brussels may irritate them, they know there is nothing splendid about isolation.
Now YouGov have done some polling that seems to back up Stephens’ conclusions, especially about the outcome of such a referendum. Read more
Ed Miliband started well at today’s PMQs, using David Cameron’s words from his 2011 New Year message to highlight the government’s failure to stop the rise in unemployment, which has hit a new 17-year high.
Miliband quotes the PM as saying: “What is uppermost in my mind is jobs,” before asking, “What went wrong?”
There then followed such a well-worn debate (“Unemployment is rising,” says Labour; “Here’s what we’re doing to tackle it,” say the Tories) that half the press gallery fell asleep during it. Read more
Nick Clegg with Herman Van Rompuy
Nick Clegg’s advisers like to call him the “Heineken” of British politics, because he reaches the parts of Europe that other British politicians can’t reach. Clegg, who trained at the College of Europe, learned at the feet of Leon Brittan, the famously pro-European Tory, became an MEP and speaks to leaders across Europe in their own languages, is ideally placed to try and win back some goodwill for the UK among European leaders.
And that is what he will try and do over the next few weeks and months. He told cabinet this morning that he now wants to focus on how to re-engage with Europe after David Cameron’s treaty veto, which has clearly angered many on the continent. Vince Cable specifically raised the issue of business fears about being cut adrift.
Tomorrow, the Lib Dem leader will host a series of meetings with business leaders to try to soothe any worries they have on the UK becoming isolated from the rest of Europe, and to ask their views on Europe more generally. He will also attend a business breakfast arranged by Business for New Europe, a pro-EU group of corporate representatives. Read more
One of the key achievements of Britain’s veto in Brussels on Thursday night was supposed to have been that not allowing the full 27 members of the EU to sign a treaty would have stopped the 26 countries willing to go ahead using the EU’s institutions to do so.
The main effect of that would be to stop the European Commission scrutinising other countries’ budgets, and the Euroopean Court of Justice implementing the Commission’s decisions. This would make it much harder for Brussels to interfere in the fiscal plans of member states. Read more
Douglas Alexander has written a piece for the New Statesman trying to prise open the cracks in the coalition over Europe.
In the run up to this afternoon’s debate on the EU, during which Ed Miliband is expected to paint Cameron as isolated both at home and abroad, the shadow foreign secretary has invited the Lib Dems to work with Labour to get the UK back into the heart of Europe.
The roots of what happened on the night of Thursday 8 December lie deep in Cameron’s failure to modernise the Tory party. Just because he puts party interest before the national interest, there is no reason others should do the same. That is why I make a genuine offer to Liberal Democrats to work with us to try to get a better outcome for Britain, between now and when this agreement is likely to be finally tied down in March. Work can and should start immediately both to win back friends and allies and to consider what rules and procedures can avoid Britain’s further marginalisation.
Nicolas Sarkozy avoids shaking David Cameron's hand
So Britain has isolated itself in Europe by refusing to sign up to a deal to save the eurozone because other countries refused to give the UK specific safeguards to protect the single market and the City of London. Tory backbenchers are delighted, but what does the pro-European Lib Dem half of the coalition make of it?
Anyone expecting a massive bust up at the heart of the coalition will have been dismayed to read Nick Clegg’s statement this morning. The deputy prime minister said:
The demands Britain made for safeguards, on which the Coalition Government was united, were modest and reasonable. They were safeguards for the single market, not just the UK.
What we sought to ensure was to maintain a level playing field in financial services and the single market as a whole. This would have retained the UK’s ability to take tougher, not looser, regulatory action to sort out our banking system.
Reading accounts of the deal agreed between Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel last night to impose new rules on EU countries to guarantee fiscal discipline, you might think the two countries were uniting to save the Eurozone from its more profligate members.
But which two countries first broke the rule that deficits should not go above 3 per cent of GDP? It was France and Germany, back in 2003. What’s more, the two then united to make sure that they wouldn’t face sanctions for doing so – effectively destroying the rules (known as the “growth and stability pact”) altogether.
What’s more, they were supported in this action by the UK (otherwise known as the country that like to lecture others on fiscal discipline). Gordon Brown was chancellor at the time. Read more
A British protester burns an EU flag
Two sources who would know have told members of our political team that the chances of having a referendum on EU membership this parliament are very low indeed.
One ruled it out altogether, the other said the “number one priority” of coalition policy on Europe was not to have one.
David Cameron pretty much guaranteed that today when he said there would only be a referendum “if a new treaty passes powers from UK to Brussels” adding:
As Prime Minister, I do not think the issue will arise.
Ed Miliband’s interventions on Europe have a habit of serving only to bring David Cameron closer to his own backbenchers on the issue. On Monday, as Tory rebels lined up in their dozens to defy Cameron on an EU referendum, Miliband was the only one who managed to restore harmony on the Tory benches, uniting them in laughter when he said:
Apparently president Sarkozy – until recently his new best friend – had had enough of the posturing, lecturing and know-it-all ways. Let me say, Mr President, you spoke not just for France but for Britain as well.
At PMQs on Wednesday, a similar thing happened. Miliband had some good lines, including telling saying Cameron “was pleading with his backbenchers instead of leading for Britain in Europe”.
David Cameron appears to be trying to dangle some red meat in front of his restive backbenchers by holding out the prospect of using any imminent EU treaty change to try and repatriate powers back from Brussels to London.
Speaking after meeting fellow European leaders over the weekend, the PM said:
This is the right time to sort out the eurozone’s problems, defend your national interest and look to the opportunities there may be in the future to repatriate powers back to Britain. Obviously the idea of some limited treaty change in the future might give us that opportunity.
As Westminster waits for the publication of Sir Gus O’Donnell’s report into whether Liam Fox broke the ministerial code as a result of his friendship with Adam Werritty, Number 10 is drip-feeding new revelations into the public domain.
The latest is that Werritty met other defence ministers: specifically Gerald Howarth and Lord Astor. We don’t know when, where or how often though. Read more
Hank Paulson had his bazooka plan, now David Cameron has gone one step further, calling for a “big bazooka” approach to tackling the eurozone crisis.
Cameron calls for five things:
- Recapitalisation of eurozone banks
- More money for the eurozone bailout fund
- Greece’s economic future to be clarified
- The IMF to pressurise countries to do more to tackle the crisis
- The deepening of the single market and improved eurozone governance
Last night the government lost a crucial amendment to their Europe bill in the Lords by a handful of votes.
Peers voted to introduce a “sunset clause” on the entire bill (actually, the entire bill apart from one technical point), which would limit it to only five years. Importantly, this means that the so-called “referendum lock” – whereby any transfer of sovereignty from London to Brussels could only be allowed after a Yes vote in a referendum – would have to be voted on again in five years’ time. Read more
How does the world look from Westminster? Foreign policy is woefully under-scrutinised in the UK, where governments can wage war and sign treaties without reference to parliament, and the limited attention it does receive could arguably be better directed. Read more
As it’s prediction season, here goes… My crystal ball, for what it is worth, foretells political and economic union between France and Germany, perhaps within the next 12-24 months. Europe needs a gamechanger, one that creates an insurmountable firebreak against the speculators. Crises have historically been the motor of European integration and a full union, much like the panicky one Britain offered France in June 1940, might look tempting. It would provide for joint organs of defence, foreign, financial and economic policies, finally fulfilling the founding fathers’ dream of “ever closer union”. Read more
Here is a fine example of the dangers of politicians writing seemingly innocuous op-eds for newspapers.
Ahead of a trip to Dublin in 2006, George Osborne used an article in The Times to pay homage to the Irish boom. The opening paragraph about Ireland’s “shining example” to economic policymakers is a classic:
A generation ago, the very idea that a British politician would go to Ireland to see how to run an economy would have been laughable. The Irish Republic was seen as Britain’s poor and troubled country cousin, a rural backwater on the edge of Europe. Today things are different. Ireland stands as a shining example of the art of the possible in long-term economic policymaking, and that is why I am in Dublin: to listen and to learn.
The conclusion is almost as cringeworthy:
The new global economy poses real long-term challenges to Britain, but also real opportunities for us to prosper and succeed. In Ireland they understand this.
They have freed their markets, developed the skills of their workforce, encouraged enterprise and innovation and created a dynamic economy. They have much to teach us, if only we are willing to learn.
To be fair to Osborne, many of his arguments are still valid even after the crash.
A well educated workforce, top notch R&D investment, and competitive tax rates to encourage investment are all as important now as they were during the boom years.
But there is not a word of caution about potential imbalanaces in the economy. No mention of the racy property market, reckless lending, or his views on the dangers to Ireland from having joined the Euro. Read more