David Cameron had hoped to travel to Prague in secret last week. News that he had entered the final stages of negotiations with his Czech counterparts over the Tories’ future in the European Parliament would only increase expectation of the deal which has eluded him for the last seven months, and heighten the derision if he failed. While his visit did become public knowledge, he returned without the British press scenting what the Lidové Noviny had printed: that he will travel to Strasbourg later this month to form a new alliance of Eurosceptic parties, and finally quit the European Peoples’ Party.
Anything involving an acronym in Brussels usually loses the interest of most Westminster politicians, and it seems that Mr Cameron paid little attention to the detail of leaving the EPP when he first came up with the idea as a leadership contender. The EPP is a group of European centre-right parties, which joined forces for maximum collective clout in the European Parliament. But Tory Eurosceptics have long resented this relationship, saying that the EPP is committed to the federalist project to which Conservatives are implacably opposed. Yet in this choice between influence and principle, successive Tory leaders have chosen the former.
Mr Cameron’s promise to withdraw, made when it was not even certain that he would stay in the leadership race, helped to win the votes of Tory MPs who might otherwise have been put off by his ‘modernising’ plans and his refusal to back grammar schools or cut taxes. For Mr Cameron, the policy of EPP withdrawal is a giant cut of meat thrown to the Eurosceptics to stop them tearing him to pieces as they have done the four previous leaders. As a device in the Cameron campaign, the pledge was a roaring success — but the drawbacks of that pledge are now manifestly, painfully clear.
Leaving the EPP has allowed Mr Cameron to be caricatured by gleeful Labour spin-doctors as abandoning the European political mainstream and limping off to sit beside a ragbag of homophobes, fascists and Robert Kilroy-Silks. Were Mr Cameron genuinely rather than opportunistically committed to the move, he would have been able to argue his corner with passion. Instead he has been evasive and tetchy on the subject — unusually, in his case, allowing the mud to stick.
It is an open secret that William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary and a man of impeccable Eurosceptic credentials, thinks that the withdrawal plan is doomed. He has never once spoken with enthusiasm about it. Instead he has muttered that the Conservatives will not leave the EPP grouping until they have formed a new bloc of Eurosceptic parties — a much harder task than the simple withdrawal to which Mr Cameron is unequivocally committed.
Privately, Mr Hague complains that his task is made all the harder because right-wing parties are not given to alliances. While leftists believe in the same basic creed — that a bureaucratic elite should be empowered to solve social problems — conservatives across Europe are united in little more than their opposition to socialists. Michael Howard used to say he was all for leaving the EPP in principle, but was advised against doing so by businessmen who argued that the only point in having Tory Euro MPs at all is to secure seats on the various committees and to fight the infernal EU from the inside.
What Mr Cameron had not bargained for is the avalanche of criticism from politicians whom he badly needs to befriend. Nicolas Sarkozy, a strong contender to be the next French president, told him last February that he was stupid to isolate himself from the main European centre-right parties. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has issued a public rebuke to the Tory leader — and met Gordon Brown recently. Even Senator John McCain, a likely successor to George W. Bush, has declared his disapproval.
Their words badly hurt Mr Cameron. By now, he should be being feted by centre-right politicians, just as Tony Blair was by Europe’s centre-left in the mid-1990s. Instead Mr Cameron faces an international chorus of ‘you stupid boy’ from his would-be allies. Even Nigel Farage, co-founder of Ukip, has said that the Conservatives are being a little extreme and ‘would probably serve the national interest better by being part of the family of European governments rather than being on the fringes’. Mr Cameron has declared the issue ‘so boring’ — hardly a considered response to his critics. But he has left himself no room for retreat. What started out as a Euro-squabble has become a greater test of whether Mr Cameron can be trusted to keep his word — or is guilty, as Labour claims, of John Kerry-style ‘flip flops’.
Mr Cameron’s grip on European policy was thrown into question a few weeks ago when Tory whips ordered MPs to back a resolution drafted by Bill Cash which declares the party ready to opt out unilaterally from European Union treaties if necessary. To Mr Cash and John Redwood — a strong Cameron supporter — it was a historic moment. Yet it was a mistake. I am told that Mr Cash simply outmanoeuvred the whips. By the time Mr Cameron’s office realised what had happened, it was too late.
Such disorder is grist to the mill of Labour’s attack on Mr Cameron as an irresolute chameleon. A backdrop of disowned votes, rejected A-list candidates and broken promises in the European Parliament will provide much ammunition to the government. However the EPP imbroglio is resolved, it has already been a gift to Mr Cameron’s enemies.
Mr Hague says we will know by the end of the month what the outcome will be. This takes us back to Prague. Mr Cameron left last Thursday with the impression that Jan Zahradil, leader of the Czech Civic Democratic party’s MEPs, would lead the new British–Polish–Czech grouping. But it is not clear whether this group would be anything more than a forum, allowing the Conservatives to stay in the EPP and attempting to satisfy everyone. This option, if enacted, may invite even more derision.
If there ever was a Strasbourg declaration agreed in Prague, I am told it is not on the agenda now and that agreement with the Czechs is still elusive. The talks, in other words, were a failure. The statement promised for July looks set to be a sheepish lack-of-progress report from Mr Hague, in which case Labour will be right to say the EPP project has effectively been aborted. Had Mr Cameron seized the initiative from the start and made a proactive case for a new Euro alliance, he might have had something to salvage. As things stand, his choice is between different shades of defeat.