This has been another political week dominated by foreign policy, and by Europe in particular. In the latter case, the focus was almost entirely on the Tories. In a sense, this is good for Labour – as Natalie Haynes said on Question Time last night, we’re just months away from a General Election, so it must be time for the Tories to tear themselves apart on Europe. But it’s also bad, because such a sundering is unlikely to happen in the same way we have known them to in the past, and any focus on the Tories simply positions them as a de facto government-in-waiting. There was a time when all we wrote and read about was Labour, except when we were staring in gawping amazement at the Tories’ idiocy. It ain’t so now.
The Tories must have known it was coming for a long time: when Václav Klaus signed the Lisbon Treaty on behalf of his country, he was doing only what both his parliament and his court had told him he must. Yet Cameron has for months parroted the line that his party would only announce their post-Lisbon European policy when Lisbon was indeed ratified by all 27 member states. Whatever the wisdom of this strategy – and it surely leaves him resembling his own caricature of a vaciliating and Prime Minsiter more than he allows – the news that no referendum would be held, but that this would never be allowed to happen again, was not welcome in some Tory quarters. Tim Montgomerie, for one, finds the policy unconvincing and insufficiently Eurosceptic. (Iain Dale, on the other hand, is predictably with Cameron.)
As usual, Bagehot eloquently sums up the conventional wisdom: this was a necessary decision, and Cameron is right both to avoid full confrontation with Brussels (and closet Tory fan Nicolas Sarkozy is responding, if nore supportively, then conciliatorily) and with his party. But the debate between Montgomerie and Dale is writ larger in the party as a whole: Guido tells us that Daniel Hannan, one of the two front-bench Tory MEPs who resigned this week over Cameron’s Lisbon move, doesn’t want a confrontation with Cameron, but at the same time says Hannan (a noted swivel-eyed loon, of course) is preparing a “long march”. Against whom, exactly? His post-resignation blog post makes it sound like a rearguard action against his own party: “We need a broad movement within the Conservative Party that will push for referendums, citizens’ initiatives and the rest of the paraphernalia of direct democracy.” Meanwhile, Cameron is urged to sack Hannan and fellow rebel Roger Helmer by the form Tory leader in Europe, and warned he risks losing votes to UKIP by Lord Tebbit. Even David Davis came out of the woodwork. The spin, as so often, is not quite the substance.
Of course, all of this is played out in the context of a likely General Election victory. Cameron is, like his Foreign Secretary William Hague, one of the most Eurosceptic Tory leaders ever, but he knows that Eurosceptic campaigns do not win General Elections. His party knows it, too, and will stave off the big debate until they have won – hence the first phase of Hannan’s long march. The new ‘policy’, announced in a deliberately underwhelming and unshowy speech by Cameron on the same day that news about Sir Christopher Kelly’s expensesgate recommendations broke, is, like the mealy-mouthed referendum talk before it, at best a soft-headed place-marker, not a proper policy at all. He is biding his time.
Which leads us to Gordon Brown’s travails this week on Afghanistan, where his continued inability – or unwillingness – to offer a decent narrative of why Britain is in that poor, put-upon country, did himself and his parties no electoral favours. Reviewing the rather well done Into The Storm this week, Sam Woollaston made a cheap-but-true quip that Brown could learn something from the rhetorical ability of Sir Winston Churchill. In an interview with the Evening Standard today, meanwhile, Cameron, whilst squarely aiming at renewing his appeal to True Blues, continues to be more eloquent and more likeable. (“If you spend your life in a poorly-lit bunker surrounded by your aides you are not going to make very good decisions,” he snipes innocently.)
The always excellent Johann Hari reminded us in this morning’s Indie why a Tory government would be a Bad Thing. But as long as he remains the best communicator on the political scene, his party will stick uneasily with him, and Labour will wander further and further into the wilderness. The EU – and the British electorate – might miss those nice social democrats when they’re gone, but it’ll be too late then.