David Cameron should have given his big Europe speech a year ago. Having just threatened to veto a new EU treaty, he had proved that he was prepared to aggressively defend Britain’s interests, and he had reassured those in his party who worried he wasn’t really serious about Euroscepticism. An address delivered at that point, which was clear about his vision for Britain’s role in Europe but vague about how he intended to achieve it, would have received a fair wind. But there was no follow-up. The veto was left to stand on its own, unconnected to a broader European policy.
There were several reasons for this. The first is that Cameron has always been slow to take advantage of his successes; he has failed to grasp that no currency depreciates faster than political capital. His two greatest successes as Prime Minister, in purely political terms, have been his victory in the AV referendum and the veto threat. But in neither case did he use his success to advance his broader agenda.
When those close to Cameron urged him to use the veto moment to set out his European strategy more fully, he demurred. He argued that it had put such a stress on coalition relations — Nick Clegg went on television to denounce it and refused to attend the Commons statement on it — that the subject was best left alone. And Cameron was right to think that discussing Britain’s relationship with Europe was going to create tensions between the two coalition parties. But, as is clear today, such tension was always inevitable. The other explanation the Prime Minister gave for his reticence was that the rest of Europe wasn’t ready. He argued that following the veto with a referendum pledge would have simply infuriated the other European leaders and led them to rule out any kind of British renegotiation.
But perhaps the more significant reason was that no one in Downing Street was expecting the veto. Until the week of the summit, Cameron was confident that he and Angela Merkel had a deal. Even after threatening a veto, he was nervous about what it meant. Steve Hilton told friends that when he woke up and heard what Cameron had done, he called the team in Brussels to congratulate them. He was ecstatic. But they, he found, were downcast and uncertain. They were heroes in error.
So Cameron has ended up giving his Europe speech in less propitious circumstances. Over the past year he has suffered a Commons defeat on Europe and seen Ukip’s poll rating surge to record highs, while trust between him and his party has dwindled.
This explains why there is such nervousness among Cameron’s supporters about the consequences of the speech, even though No. 10 is confident that it will be well received. One Cabinet ally thinks that he shouldn’t be giving the speech, because he is not yet ready to raise the prospect of a British exit from the European Union. A former aide, meanwhile, fears that the Prime Minister has made EU renegotiation his defining purpose, when he never wanted to ‘bang on’ about Europe.
These risks have been exacerbated by Cameron’s failure to bind the Cabinet in to his approach. Iain Duncan Smith was not involved in the drafting process at all, despite assurances from the Prime Minister over dinner in the Downing Street flat in November 2011 that he would be consulted on the development of Tory European policy. The only time for a collective discussion of it by Tory secretaries of state was a political Cabinet less than 48 hours before the speech.
These failings can be put down to No. 10’s ‘it’ll be all right on the night’ approach. I’ve lost count of the number of times that Cameron’s advisers have told me that the confusion surrounding the speech will be forgotten as soon as it is delivered. This might be true. But the impression it has created has dented the Cameroons’ reputation for competence and the failure to properly consult the Tory members of the Cabinet has generated considerable ill will.
Part of the problem is the tendency inside Cameron’s immediate circle to groupthink. Too often, those in No. 10 who have sought to question priorities or the way the government is approaching an issue have been treated as if they were just being awkward. This has resulted in some policies not being properly thought out. Since the departure of Hilton, the in-house contrarian, last summer, the problem has worsened.
One of Cameron’s strengths is that he doesn’t get overly hung up on one issue. But, as with so many politicians, his great strength is also a weakness. It is noticeable how little progress there has been since before Christmas on the new policies that were meant to flow from the mid-term review. This is especially striking as some of them — more help with childcare for working mothers, for instance — are frequently touted as among his personal priorities. But with the Treasury not pushing them forward, little is happening. Indeed, there’s a growing suspicion in No. 10 and the Cabinet Office that the Treasury is deliberately going slow on some of the announcements so that it can co-opt them for the budget in March.
Something that cheers many of those close to Cameron is the thought that he is particularly well suited to a renegotiation. One long-time aide argues, ‘He’s the person you want doing this, he’s dogged and understands how to work people. He’s better suited to the task than Maggie would have been. He’ll be able to do it without creating too much collateral damage.’
What’s certain is that Europe is going to join the economy as one of the defining issues of our politics. Before 2015, the other party leaders will have to decide whether to match Cameron’s referendum pledge or not, while he will have to answer endless questions about what he’ll do if it turns out that there is no renegotiation on offer. The leader who wanted to stop the Tories from banging on about Europe is going to end up talking about the subject more than Margaret Thatcher, John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard ever did.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 19 January 2013