Tuesday, July 01, 2014 

When presenting failure as success works.

You furnish decay with innocent hands.  You furnish decay with polymer down.

Politics is a strange, constantly changing, always the same business.  There are times when you can present failure as success and get away with it, and there are times when you can claim failure when you've succeeded and get pilloried for it.  You can travel across Europe, get the signature of a world leader that condemns an entire country and be feted for ensuring peace (at least for a few months), or you can go to Brussels, be completely humiliated, shown up as having precisely no influence over anything, and yet be cheered to the rafters by your backbenchers and most of the media as though you didn't just stop someone unsuitable from becoming EU commission president, but put a lance through their bowel in the bargain.

This is the really odd thing about David Cameron: for all the insults liberally thrown at Ed Miliband, about being weak, a loser, a nerd, weird, by rights the two former jibes should have stuck to our glorious prime minister.  Ever since he went to the Eurozone summit back at the tail end of 2011 and wielded the veto, achieving precisely zilch other than further isolating Britain in Europe, his policy on the EU has been one flub after another, yielding to his backbenchers in a way that would have seen his predecessors condemned as vacillating pygmies.

Pressured by growing discontent at his leadership, he promised an in/out referendum in 2017 following a successful re-negotiation of our role in the EU, believing giving a set in stone pledge would buy off his more intransigent critics.  Instead, as was wholly predictable, they've kept on pushing, trying repeatedly to hold the next government to account by forcing the referendum on to the statute book despite it being utterly futile.  Nor did it have the other desired effect of showing UKIP voters the only way to be sure of a vote is to support the Tories; again, if anything, it's just pushed those already disposed to wanting out to plump for Farage.  Cameron insists he wants us to stay in, after all.  Why would they be bought off with half measures?  To complete the trifecta, it hasn't trapped Labour either, Miliband refusing to promise a referendum when there are far more pressing issues to be dealt with, and when staying in is so obviously in our interests.

If another aim was to make it clear to the rest of Europe we could leave, causing concern leading to  continental leaders becoming more amenable to to Tory demands, that's gone for the birds as well.  And no wonder, as the only way most Eurosceptics know how to communicate is through abuse.  Whatever Jean-Claude Juncker is, he's not the most dangerous man in Europe, that old formulation given life yet again by the Sun.  When the Germans, otherwise sympathetic to Cameron and desperate to ensure we don't leave do a volte face and support Juncker, it's not just down to Angela Merkel coming under domestic pressure, it's also in part due to our counter-productive attempts at lobbying, or more accurately described, that odd mixture of threatening and pleading.

We are then according even to Cameron one step closer to the exit.  Juncker's presidency of the Commission will make the re-negotiation more difficult.  Understandably, the likes of Bill Cash and Edward Leigh lap it up, unconcerned at how the exit happens so long as it does.  Nor does the obvious weakness of a British prime minister concern those it would normally excise deeply.  It also doesn't bother them how the increasing likelihood of leaving the EU could affect the Scottish independence referendum, when the SNP have been campaigning on the basis of being a welcoming country, wanting to be an active member of the EU, calling for more immigration rather than less.  The dismay of the vast majority of the business community is something else that can be shrugged off, especially when Labour is seen with such suspicion.

On almost any other issue Cameron would have been filleted had he talked so big and ended up achieving so little.  When the level of debate about the EU is so wonderfully summed up by the classlessness of UKIP MEPs turning their backs in parliament though, the kind of political gesture that would make fifth-formers look like idiots, it just doesn't get through the dissonance.  A man who supposedly wants us to remain in a reformed Europe gave into the demands of his want out MPs at the first sign of trouble, and on every occasion since has multiplied the magnitude of his original error.  If the Tories win in 2015, a huge if, he faces the nightmarish prospect of having to bargain and cajole those he and other members of the cabinet have insulted, knowing it could end up in a choice between putting either the interests of the country or himself as Tory party leader first.  Going by his past decisions, it's not difficult to ascertain which option he'd go for.

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Tuesday, May 07, 2013 

Cameron: a hostage to fortune.

Although it feels like aeons ago, it was only back in January that David Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech, pledging an in/out referendum on EU membership should his party win the next election. At the time it must have seemed a good idea, and initially it looked like it had had its desired effect: his restive backbenchers cheered him to the rafters, it seemed to have trapped Labour, and surely it would have some impact on the increase in support for Ukip.

Less than six months later and it's as though the jaws of the trap have snapped back. To further mix metaphors, it always seemed as though Cameron was setting himself up as a hostage to fortune. The man he so wanted to be the heir to never gave in to his backbenchers; instead he thrived on picking fights with them. True, Cameron failed where Blair succeeded, which partially explains the backbencher ire in the first place, yet Dave caved in at first sign of trouble.  Rather than being sated, they've demanded ever since that Cameron move faster, to the point where it looks as though legislation may be forthcoming in this parliament as a further sop.

Nor has it had the desired effect on Ukip. Indeed, they've been emboldened by it, as was predicted. As counter-intuitive as it seems, support for Ukip isn't about Europe, as is now hopefully apparent. It can be overstated just how far the popularity, such as it is, for Farage is down to a state of mind, and it'd be great to quantify how many of those saying they'd vote for the party would still do so if there was to be a vote on the EU tomorrow.  Total disaffection and/or sending a message of protest nonetheless explains much of it.  It's possible that some of those who've decamped could be won back if Cameron shifted slightly further to the right, or better yet, recruited some advisers from outside his own social milieu, but it's deeply dubious as to whether those voicing their discontent beyond a mere protest can be so easily persuaded to return.

Thankfully, it does seem as though those making clear that much of Ukip's support is irreconcilable are now in the majority.  As easy as it is to fall into stereotype, it's difficult not to meet the odd person that fits all the descriptions of being a Kipper, and they usually aren't shy in venturing their views on Britain as it is in 2013.  They might not be racist, but they certainly don't like immigrants even if they don't mind those they know of locally; they blame the EU at the first opportunity; and they are invariably complaining about something or other.  They don't have to read the Mail/Express/Telegraph, but it helps, and they regard things as being much better at some point in the past, even if they can't say exactly when.

The obvious point to make is that plenty of people also hold one or more of the above things to be self-evident, yet they either don't let everyone else know about it or would ever dream of voting for a party other than the main three.  Nor are any of these things irrational or wrong; rapid change in local communities as happened post-2004 was bound to lead to a backlash, while even those of us who would stay in the EU hardly regard it as being anything close to an unmitigated force for good.  Nostalgia also has to be taken into account: reading the Graun's pieces today on 1963 you can't help but think that was a pretty good year on the whole.  Would any of us who weren't around at the time actually want to live in that period were such a thing possible though?  Almost certainly not.

Those who have moved to Ukip also realise they can't turn the clock back.  They might want to, and they want to make clear that they do, but they know full well that Ukip isn't going to win a general election, nor necessarily would they want Farage to be the prime minister.  This is the conundrum facing the Tories: in almost every way, the party would be a better vehicle for their discontent, as many of their MPs also hold Ukip voters' prejudices, yet for any number of reasons they've lost faith in them and so would rather register their anger elsewhere.  This can't all be put down to Cameron or the detoxification strategy, nor can it be easily explained by all three parties fighting over the same territory.  It is more, as Max Dunbar writes, a lashing out at the present while coming over all rose-tinted about the past.  Perhaps it can be best explained thus: whereas the young disenchanted simply don't vote, those who feel much the same but who were brought up with the importance of the franchise drilled into them regard putting an X in the Ukip box the least worst option.

Lord Lawson's call for us to leave the EU immediately doesn't really change things much.  The EU is the least of most people's worries, although should the Tories increasingly fight over just how soon the referendum should be they might become excised at the amount of attention something arcane is receiving.  Cameron's problem is that a move that was designed to buy him more time and hopefully damage the other parties has so spectacularly backfired.  He doesn't want us to leave the EU, businesses on the whole don't want us to leave, and nor I'd wager would the electorate should the vote be held tomorrow.  He can't however take such a risk, and so the uncertainty that is so damaging will continue instead.  And all the time the boneheads within his party continue their rattling.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013 

If, if and if.

If there's one thing to be said for David Cameron's long-awaited, twice postponed speech on Europe, it's that it's almost certainly the best of his premiership so far.  The chief reason for it being so good however is precisely its weakness: to call it vague on detail is an understatement.  It reminds of the countless articles written by opposition politicians, all promising to do something but not spelling out how they would do so if given the opportunity.  The only actual EU directive he suggested he would like to re-negotiate or renege from was on working time, otherwise going after the usual bugbears of regulation and red tape.  Put it this way: apart from that specific detail, there was little in the speech that anyone apart from the most ardent Europhile or Eurosceptic could possibly disagree with.  We all want an improved, more streamlined EU, and if this was genuinely what Cameron was seeking, substantial reform rather than renegotiation, he'd deserve cross-party support.

Except he isn't.  Cameron and his party only care about Europe in the sense that they mostly like the economic benefits while loathing everything else that comes with it.  Those economic benefits have since been somewhat undermined in their eyes by the Labour government's decision to opt into the social chapter, which brought in new workplace protections that we never had previously.  This is the view shared by some businesses, although not by all, many of whom reach the view that the positives of the single market and free movement of labour within the EU outweigh the negatives of increased worker protection.  Cameron's gamble is that business as a whole will get behind his bid for renegotiation, and won't be unnerved by the potential for the eventual referendum to result in a big fat no.  For the most part so far they've kept relatively quiet, almost certainly for the reason that they doubt it's going to actually happen.

After all, who at the moment is willing to bet that the Tories will still be in government after the next election?  Anything can still happen, but the polls aren't in his favour.  Indeed, another strand of Cameron's strategy is that going for the in/out referendum will trap Labour and Ed Miliband, just as Osborne previously aimed to with his benefits cap. The polls haven't moved, and while it would be foolish to say they also won't this time, it's likely any Tory boost will be shortlived.

Where it could have more of an impact is on the rise in support for UKIP. While much of their improved polling is down to protest votes, the offer of a referendum could well be enough to win over some of those who've become disillusioned with the Tories. If we're to believe Lord Ashcroft's polling though, much of the UKIP hardcore appear to think we live in a dystopia much like that imagined by Richard Littlejohn in his sadly overlooked To Hell in a Handcart novel; nothing short of bringing back hanging, the birch and the black and white minstrels is going to return them to the fold. The whole point of UKIP in any case, as Sunny notes, is to get out of the EU altogether, not make it slightly more acceptable as Cameron claims to want. Besides, Cameron's gambit has led to Nigel Farage taking as much credit as the prime minister's backbenchers, a spectacular result for a party leader without a single MP and fewer councillors than the Greens.

Equally clear is it's those backbenchers that are the other main victors, at least for now.  The Tory leadership has gone in the space of a year from voting against an in/out referendum to promising exactly that.  The only explanation for this latest u-turn is just how restive the party has become, as a report in the Sunday Times last week suggested.  Quite why Cameron has given in when the stakes are so high is difficult to properly ascertain: although they don't seem to realise it, Cameron is about the only asset the Conservatives have.  Defenestrating him and installing someone further to the right is not going to win them the next election, regardless of how some despite everything believe they would have won the election outright if it wasn't for Cameron's liberal tendencies.  Tony Blair repeatedly took on his backbenchers until they ended up hating him regardless of their electoral success; Cameron has thrown in the towel at the sight of the first punch heading towards him.

The problem for both them and Cameron is that regardless of what they might say when asked specifically on it, the vast majority of people don't care about Europe and the EU.  They are concerned about immigration as a result of the EU, or the European Court of Human Rights, but Cameron clearly isn't intending to renege from open borders when business is often in favour of no limits whatsoever, while the ECHR is part of the Council of Europe rather than the EU.  They also care when politicians obsess about an issue that they feel has little bearing on their lives, as the Tories have in the past.  Rather than stopping his party from "banging on about Europe", Cameron has just started off an utterly tedious debate that could potentially last four years, and will involve us seeing much more of such bores as Peter Bone, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash.  The idea that this will instantly result in a swing back to the Tories or even win them the next election is naive.

My personal view has long been that there should be in/out referendum, both to settle the question for a generation and for the reason that I've long thought we would vote to stay in given the option.  We don't need to wait four years to do that; we could have it within six months.  My gut instinct is should the Tories win the next election (a huge if) Cameron probably would succeed in getting something back in a treaty renegotiation, mainly because the Germans clearly want us to stay in and they're going to continue holding the purse strings in the EU for years to come, with the 25 other countries going along with it.  He could then say he's done what he said he would and go to the country.  The obvious problem then is, if he's achieved something even remotely close to what the Eurosceptics who want to stay in say they want, what's the point of the EU if it works only for business and not for anyone else?  Already the shift amongst the Eurozone countries has been to effectively outlaw Keynesian economics, and with Cameron and friends repeatedly saying we're in a race where in their view workers' rights are outdated, it's not too outlandish to imagine that there could be movement on the social chapter as well.

What though if Cameron doesn't get anything approaching what his backbenchers want?  Will he still campaign for a vote to stay in?  Cameron might have caved in to his party as it makes things easier for him in the short term, but he knows full well business will mutiny if he hardens his position any further.  This is why Ed Miliband has been right to refuse to support such a referendum, not only because of all the hypotheticals involved, but as it's pointless if you're not the one doing the negotiating.  Yes, the public should have a say and soon, yet surely they should know exactly what it is they're going to be voting either for or against.  The next election, despite Cameron's navel-gazing, won't be about Europe, it'll be about living standards, the economy, the state of the NHS and whether austerity has worked.  In all probability, and for those very reasons, Cameron isn't going to be doing anything other than sitting on the backbenches himself come 2017.

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Friday, December 09, 2011 

In Europe, without influence.

The deal reached in Brussels this morning is on nearly every conceivable level a disaster. It locks the Eurozone countries already struggling into a market imposed strait-jacket of austerity and cuts, without ensuring that the European Central Bank will even now step in to provide the money the stability fund needs to be able to back up Italian debts. There's a close to unbelievable irony in the European Commission having to sign off the national budgets of Eurozone members when, regardless of the lack of auditors or complications, the EU's own books haven't been deemed acceptable for the last 16 years. Rather than recognising that it's been the very differences in the economies of the Eurozone members that have brought it to this point, this new deal draws them in even tighter, with even more burdensome rules. National sovereignty has been even further sacrificed for what now looks increasingly like an utterly doomed project, with everyone required to line up behind the deeply underwhelming Merkozy partnership, itself liable to break-up next year when France goes to the polls.

Implausible as it might seem, David Cameron's involvement has been an even bigger catastrophe. Here was a wonderful opportunity for a British prime minister to lead those other countries deeply uncertain about the Merkozy plans, giving them a voice at the table. If there's going to be a "two-speed" Europe, made up primarily of those outside the Eurozone, then Britain ought to be the one that speaks up for them. Cameron instead did exactly what his Eurosceptic bankbenchers wanted him to do: he talked big. And what did he get in return? Absolutely nothing. Rather than winning over the likes of the Swedes, Czechs and Hungarians, all of whom will now be consulting their parliaments over the treaty changes, he turned them off by continuing to insist on the sanctity of the City over everything else. By using his veto he hasn't stopped the Tobin tax, as the French and Germans refused outright to reconsider their position on introducing it. Nor has he stopped the Eurozone members from going through with the changes, which was never his intention anyway. All it adds up to is he doesn't have to try and get an overall treaty change through the Commons, something he was unlikely to manage.

This is a very short-term victory, it's true. In the longer term it leaves Cameron in an unenviable position. Already the Eurosceptics in the party are agitating for more, and who could possibly blame them? By leaving Britain possibly in a gang of one, should the other three countries all sign up to the new pact however unlikely it may seem now, all our influence on future changes has disappeared in a flash. What then, beyond the advantages of the single market, remains the point of staying in the EU? The Conservatives already loathe the social chapter, the working time directive, the common fisheries policy and all the other "regulatory" burdens they imagine are holding British business back, so why stay in when the negatives in their view so overwhelmingly outweigh the positives? The slightly more pragmatic, as Bagehot notes, want a re-negotiation to remove these impediments, while the hardline Europhobes seem to imagine us as Switzerland with nuclear weapons, or Norway without the oil. Both positions especially now seem to be utter fantasy. Having just so thoroughly pissed off the French and annoyed everyone else with his high-handedness, any such attempts at changing our relationship would be the equivalent of pulling teeth; ours.

All of which is to completely ignore the Tories' real paymasters, British business. They too might loathe the regulations the EU sets down, but the vast majority see no point whatsoever in a renegotiation doomed to failure, let alone the myriad of problems that would arise as a result of us pulling out altogether. They'll be looking at what's gone on today, both the apparent suicidal tendencies of the main Eurozone countries as well as the grandstanding of Cameron and be in despair. The CBI has notably so far said "wait and see", which is hardly an endorsement of either position. Should they look back in a few months/years time and see that Cameron has essentially led the country down the path of isolation, it would certainly be enough for them to think about trusting Labour again.

William Hague's old slogan while leader was that his party's position was to be "in Europe, not run by Europe". Cameron's achievement is to be in Europe while having no influence over it. Romano Prodi has described it as "gained freedom, but lost power". Even more apposite is Nosemonkey's observation that at least Chamberlain came back with a piece of paper. It was worthless, but it was something. Cameron has brought back nothing but more problems for himself.

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Thursday, November 03, 2011 

Doomed.

The one thing that stands out above everything else in the Eurozone crisis is just how terrified the politicians involved are, even if they're hiding it beneath the anger currently being directed at Greek prime minister George Papandreou. If it's difficult to take everything in or come close to understanding just what's at stake, and politics nerds are themselves struggling, then this piece by the continually excellent Larry Elliot more or less explains it. The fear is that should Greece default, we'll be in a similar situation to that of September 2008 when Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt. Should Greece go under, then the fear is that the contagion will then spread to Italy, although it may already have done, as bond yields are approaching unsustainable levels. The main European banks are far more exposed to Italian debt than they are to Greece, as this chart scarily demonstrates.

We all know what happened then. The banks were bailed out, interest rates were cut to almost nothing and a stimulus package then followed. The recession that could follow the collapse of the Eurozone and the default of Greece and Italy (with Spain, Portugal and Ireland possibly reneging on their debts too) would probably put paid to the early 1930s as the era known as the great depression. The room for manoeuvre is almost non-existent.

This goes some way then to explain the reaction of France and Germany to Papandreou's initial decision to hold a referendum on the bail out. First, it should be pointed out that Papandreou himself went out on a limb amongst his party in giving the impression of asking the people: he didn't tell them what he was going to do. Secondly, it may well have been a ploy: it looks tonight as though the Greek opposition, who were opposing the further austerity the bail out was going to impose may well join a coalition, with Papandreou stepping aside. This doesn't mean that they're going to carry the people with them, obviously, but it should make it ever so slightly more representative.

Even so, the behaviour of Sarkozy and Merkel (and others too) has been shocking. Last week the non-Berlusconi owned Italian press that has long despaired of the prime minister protested at the insulting manner taken by the pair towards the country and the ability of its current government to impose reforms. This was nothing to the treatment meted out to Papandreou in Cannes yesterday evening, and in turn to the Greeks themselves. It may well be the taxpayers of France and Germany that are having to stump up to bail out the country, but this is nothing to the next few years the Greeks themselves are going to have to go through. Unemployment is already 20% and the state is no longer offering some services. There is every sign Greece is being asked to put itself into a death spiral to save a failing political project, and that sacrifice is not even being slightly acknowledged.

It's this unthinking arrogance bordering on blackmail that will end up being remembered. On the surface it appears to prove the democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union, with the big nations bullying those they now admit should never have been admitted it to the Eurozone in the first place. For those of us who support the EU's intentions, if not its methods, it only seems to confirm the long-held arguments of our opponents, who have been crowing all week about how they were insulted and slandered and have ultimately been proved right, willfully confusing the Eurozone with the EU. Their case has always been that the European project has been constructed over the heads of the people themselves, and now in the ultimate expression of that the Greeks are being given no choice about their own destiny. There will always be those whom, often quite rightly, argue that through electing parties in favour of the EU we've given our consent yet this is something quite different. It's not being too alarmist to suggest there could be a people's revolution against a democratically elected government over this, if the military doesn't step in first.

An orderly (if there can be such a thing) default ought to have been engineered months ago. Instead there's been almost a year of uncertainty, with the Greeks forced to swallow a medicine that has only made things worse. We seem to have acquired a whole generation of politicians, of both the nominal left and right, who believe in institutions rather than people themselves. At the end of this there simply has to be a reckoning for all of those involved, and in truth it's been a very long time in coming.

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