East meets Westminster: Cameron’s Euro performance sets him up for 2015 victory
East Meets Westminster’s Richard Porritt analyses the possible knock-on effects of David Cameron’s triumphant EU summit
Looking back it seems that the majority of the population has been dubious about our relationship with the cousins across the Channel almost since the referendum that took the country into the EU back in 1973.
Then it was the Common Market vote that won out but now the argument has definitely shifted.
When the Prime Minister went to Brussels to demand no increase in the EU budget many thought he was on a very sticky, political wicket – the respected thinking was he and his team would spin a defeat (or draw) and sell it as a victory.
What actually happened might not have been regarded a victory overseas but back home with the faithful it was pure triumph. And as this saga pans out it will be the point where Mr Cameron set in motion his 2015 General Election win.
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By digging his heels in against Europe Mr Cameron has delighted those in the party that want the UK to distance itself from Brussels but his rhetoric over austerity has also hit home with struggling families. His defiance must now continue when the 27 leaders meet up again in January for what promises to be a blockbuster of a summit.
Like Margaret Thatcher before him, Mr Cameron does not want to hand over a penny more than is absolutely necessary to Europe. Even voters who are not anti-EU will see the reason and logic in this during such tough times here in the UK. In fact even German Chancellor – and Europe’s current Iron Lady – Angela Merkel has sympathy with the PM’s position.
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One unnamed Tory speaking to East meets Westminster the day after the talks broke down said the stalemate felt like a victory for Mr Cameron – and Britain.
“There was a real feeling of ‘up yours’,” he said. “For too long Prime Ministers have just happily fallen into line with what Brussels has demanded and whether you want in or out of Europe that is not the way these negotiations should happen.
“I think the Prime Minister shocked a few people. Many people – here and around the negotiating tables – thought he would talk tough to the press outside and then agree to some kind of deal but he would not budge. And rightly so. What is interesting is that his strong opposition has given some other leaders a boost and they are now making sounds similar to David.
“Hopefully the public will see that the Prime Minister is doing the very best he can to make sure our money is not being splashed around abroad when we are being forced in to difficult cut backs at home.”
And Dan Poulter, MP for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich, agrees: “The Prime Minister has stood up for Britain and made it clear to other European countries that whilst we value the benefits that trading with Europe brings to British businesses, during more difficult times when savings have to be made, it is unacceptable for us to pay more money to Europe.”
But where does all this tough talking – coupled with tough actions – leave those people screaming for an in/out referendum on Europe? This is a tricky issue for Mr Cameron who believes we should be in Europe for trade purposes whereas many Tory supporters believe Britain would be far better off casting the mainland adrift.
Earlier this week Tory party chairman Grant Shapps reacted with a blunt “no way” when vice- chairman Michael Fabricant suggested a pact with the anti-EU Ukip to not contest marginal seats in return for a referendum.
Mr Fabricant prepared a report for Mr Cameron where he suggested working closely with Nigel Farage’s party in a bid to stem the “continued haemorrhage” of voters to Ukip. But Mr Shapps confirmed: “I can categorically rule out any form of electoral pact with Ukip or anyone else.”
During questions to the Prime Minister, when he reported back to the House of Commons on last week’s summit, MP for Harwich and North Essex Bernard Jenkin asked: “Does the Prime Minister agree that this is not about submitting to European demands, but about staking out our own national interest and building alliances around that?”
In his answer, the PM was clear: “It is important to form alliances to try to get deals that are in our national interest, but as in all these things we have to have a bottom line, and sometimes that means that we will have to go it alone.”
It appears Mr Cameron has used this moment to stand up to Europe – a very clever move as it calls for a defiant stance. He can use his brave performance in Brussels to strengthen his position that Britain does not need an in/out vote, it just needs to stand up to the eurocrats.
For a long time Europe has split the Conservative party. It has been – and remains – a cancer eating away at any and all attempts at truly unifying the members, ministers and backbenchers. Mr Cameron has a long way to go before he solves the issue and he probably never will.
But by standing firm now he might just have staved off the argument. And to the general public – who still like to imagine this increasingly less sceptred isle as all powerful – the PM has proved he, and Britain, will not be bullied.