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David Cameron is trapped by history

To the outside observer, the UK Prime Minister’s increasingly belligerent comments on Britain’s enigmatic relationship withe the European Union is become more and more baffling. The imbroglio over the extra budget contribution, hardline remarks on freedom of movement,  etc. are just symptoms of a deeper malaise, writes chief political correspondent Tim McNamara.

For example, why did he allow himself to be almost completely marginalised at the Ypres European Council summit when opposing the, by then, inevitable appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission. It makes little political sense to be on the wrong side of a 26-2 vote. Especially when your other half in the vote was the maverick Hungarian P.M. Viktor Orban.

His recent posturing cannot be simply explained away as a consequence of being under electoral pressure from Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party. To fully understand Cameron’s current motives it is necessary to take account of three crucial aspects. One being his personality, another is the manner in which he won the leadership his party and thirdly, the evolution of the Tory (Conservative) party in ideological terms as well as its electoral performance in 2010.

A person with Cameron’s upbringing is not the type of person instinctively given to compromise and negotiation. A continual input that one is part of a privileged elite hardly ever fails to instill a feeling of high self-esteem and resultant robust self-confidence. It is an upbringing that eschews overt political consciousness. As Karl Marx wrote “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.”

Furthermore, a consequence of such self-belief allied to a good level of intelligence can translate into intellectual laziness. Experience demonstrates to people like Cameron that the right accent, eruditeness, charm and an ironclad sense of superiority can go a very long way in British society. This is also mirrored by a sense of deference by many of the middle classes in response to their supposed  ‘betters’.

Hence, David Cameron is not one much given to contemplation or public self-reflection. For example his background goes a long way to explain his well-known and demonstrable lack of preparedness before EU summits. He is innately given to having a lack of strategic thinking as regards politics with a preference for tactical advantage over long-term considerations.

This failure to properly prepare positions and build sustainable alliances is also partly due to the manner in which he became leader of his party in 2005.

After clearly losing the general election, Michael Howard resigned as Tory party leader.  The two main rivals for the post of leader was David Davis (the overwhelming favourite) and Liam Fox who was a credible outsider in the race. Prior to the Tory party conference in 2005, David Cameron was widely seen as just leaving a marker for the next leadership election and for better preferment under a new leader.

At the annual conference the contenders were allowed to make a 20-minute speech to delegates. David Davis made a rather stiff and stilted speech widely perceived as poor. Cameron, however, in a braveau performance, speaking without notes for its entirety, made such an impression that by the evening of the same day was now seen as a highly credible candidate and was installed as one of the favourites.

Prior to the first round of voting on the 18th October, Cameron’s main rival was Liam Fox, seen as representing the right-wing of the party. Fox was, and is, an avowed Atlanticist and ardent eurosceptic. Cameron and his, then, chief adviser George Osborne made the electoral calculation that in order to have a chance of success they would have to harden their position on Europe.

To demonstrate his eurosceptic credentials, Cameron made the pivotal decision to pledge that if elected he would lead his party out of the main centre-right group in the European Parliament, the European People’s party (EPP). This decision undoubtedly helped him win but it is one of the root causes as to his current difficulties with the EU.

Cameron’s promise to leave the EPP was finally delivered in 2009. The fact that it took nearly four years to deliver on his vow to leave the EPP shows how difficult a decision it was for him.

Not only did the Tory party estrange themselves from their natural allies on the continental mainland but they set up a rival centre-right grouping in the European Parliament much to the chagrin of the EPP. The members of the Tory’s new group, the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR), including many Tory MEPs who were far more hardline eurosceptic than the Tory’s official position on the EU.

Membership of the EPP had offered the chance to magnify influence, build informal as well as fixed alliances, negotiate quid pro quo’s and develop personal relations with other leaders which are often of crucial importance in complex high-level EU negotiations. This was all sacrificed on the altar of leadership ambition and national political pragmatism.

One of the main reason that Cameron has continued on this apparent ideological path is that as a politician and especially as a leadership candidate he had made very few promises and gave little away as to his true position on many issues. However, his current position owes very little to ideology of fixed belief but everything to the manner in which he won the leadership and to his continuing status as leader.

Cameron, has been forced into a corner, because if he changed track on the UK’s position in the EU he would be breaking one of the very few crystal-clear political pledges he has ever made. This holding to his position is also partly attributable to the changing nature of the Tory Parliamentary party.

When Cameron was elected leader in 2005, 20-30% of the then Parliamentary Tory party was either very much pro-EU (e.g. Ken Clarke) or at least neutral on the subject. This has changed dramatically following the 2010 general election. Nearly half (147) of Tory MPs were newly elected MPs.

The new intake were overwhelmingly eurosceptic, whilst many pro-EU Tory MPs had stood down at the same election. This meant that the post-May 2010 party was a completely eurosceptic party with a handful of dissidents on the subject. Combined with the disappointment of many Tory MPs over the failure of a Cameron-led party to win an overall majority at the election, the continuing ratchet of ideological fervour meant that Cameron’s room for manoeuvre on EU matters was always going to be severely curtailed.

The success of hardline Tory eurosceptics in the 2009 European election had already led to the MEPs being far more indisciplined over EU matters, especially with them leaving the EPP. The 2010 general election made them even more independently-minded than Cameron would have wished. Juncker is very displeased that Cameron’s Tory group of MEPs in the European parliament mainly abstained or voted against the approval of Juncker and the rest of the European Commission.

Surrounded by eurosceptics on nearly all sides, Cameron’s obduracy and grandstanding at EU summits is a direct consequence of how he won the leadership and the current make-up of his party. He has alienated Chancellor Merkel over free movement. He has failed to win any allies to his extremely vague reform agenda and has successfully alienated the new European Commission President.

As Jean-Claude Juncker diplomatically said recently “I don’t have a problem with David Cameron, he has a problem with the other prime ministers.”  A problem that ensures that he can do nothing about free movement/EU migration to the UK despite his party crying out for him to do something significant.

It is demonstrably almost impossible for Cameron difficult to change tack on one of his very few hard positions/choices. He is almost certainly in a position he does not want to be or is comfortable with.  However, to use a well-known English idiom ‘he has made his own bed and now has to lie in it’.



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