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Cameron to carve a European illusion

Published in Business Spectator (Melbourne), 10 January 2013

Later this month, British Prime Minister David Cameron will give a speech that has been postponed many times before. He will finally set out his vision of Britain’s place in Europe. At least that’s what he just announced on BBC television last weekend.

Cameron’s announcement of an announcement on Europe should not get anyone too excited though. On Europe, there is simply not much substantial that Cameron dares to say. If he really wanted to say something more, it wouldn’t have taken him more than seven years since becoming leader of the Conservative Party in late 2005.

When I was chief economist of Policy Exchange, a British think tank closely linked to then opposition leader David Cameron, the Conservative Party were desperate for new ideas. Little wonder: Having lost three times in a row to Tony Blair’s New Labour, they had no recipe for winning back the electorate since Blair and his Chancellor Gordon Brown had effectively occupied most fields of policy with their so-called ‘Third Way’ agenda.

The Tories needed alternatives to that, and Policy Exchange was supposed to deliver them. Consequently, there were very few no-go areas for us researchers.

You could think about privatising education, suggest electing top police officers, propose comprehensive road tolling, or question the wisdom of Britain’s national greenbelt policy. You could even call for a new generation of London double-decker buses, which was a true sign of new Tory radicalism.

Nothing was too outrageous or far-fetched to be thought about in those early days of ‘Cameronism’.

There was, however, one word that should under no circumstances find its way into any of our statements, proposals, speeches or articles. It may not even have been a formal ban on the word but it was clear to all of us that as soon as we mentioned it, we would not have time to talk about anything else.

We knew that David Cameron and his team thought about it exactly the same way. That was because it was a dangerous word that would summon evil Tory spirits, divide the party and show to the public that Cameron’s Conservatives really had not changed, despite Cameron’s ceaseless attempts to make the party look cool and modern.

The word in question was, of course, ‘Europe’.

Europe had been the Conservative Party’s trauma of the past decades. It was one of the main battlegrounds for previous Tory Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. To be sure, battlegrounds not for fighting their political enemies but for fighting their own party. Especially John Major’s seven years at the top of the British government had been plagued by an open split between Euro-sceptics and Euro-enthusiasts. It undermined Major’s ability to govern effectively, and it certainly did not impress voters.

David Cameron was intimately familiar with the deep troubles over Europe that Major’s government had faced. In the early 1990s, Cameron was an advisor first to the prime minister and then to Chancellor Norman Lamont, just at the time of ‘Black Wednesday’ when Britain was forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. Cameron therefore experienced the Conservatives’ ordeal over Europe first hand, and this experience undoubtedly had an impact on how Cameron was to position himself over Europe. His conclusion was simply not to position himself at all.

When Cameron became Tory leader, he had promised the Euro-sceptic wing of his party a referendum on the planned EU constitution. However, he did so without upsetting the Europhiles too much. When the EU Constitution then morphed into the Lisbon Treaty, and when Cameron inherited the treaty from his predecessor Gordon Brown, he found good reasons not to deliver on his “iron-cast guarantee” to subject it to a referendum.

Cameron’s EU policy so far has been hard to decipher if you thought he had one. On the one hand, he was unable to stop large groups of Euro-sceptic backbenchers from embarrassing him in parliament. On the other hand, at EU summits he sometimes appeared as if he wanted to head the Euro-sceptics himself. Cameron’s own position between the two deeply divided wings of his party remained nebulous.

Cameron’s EU stance, however, makes perfect sense when taking into account his own experiences with his party’s past EU policies. He knows that the issue triggers emotions that are hard to control once let loose, and he has witnessed what such emotions have done to his predecessors. He also has to balance his own party’s views with those of his Liberal Democrat coalition partner, which usually takes a much more EU friendly outlook. Finally, he faces a public that is deeply divided on Europe as well as a potential electoral threat from the UK Independence Party, a hard-core Euro-sceptical group attracting mainly disgruntled Tory right-wingers.

Judging by Cameron’s decisive indecisiveness on Europe, he must have concluded a long time ago that for any British Conservative Prime Minister, dealing with Britain’s relationship with the EU is a minefield that needs to be avoided almost at all cost.

Unfortunately for him, such a strategy may work in opposition when one can leave the tough questions to the government of the day and instead focus on more pleasant topics instead. Once in power, eventually a position has to be taken, especially when the future of the project of European integration hangs in the balance.

When Cameron finally delivers his long-awaited speech on Europe, he now faces a real choice. Will he actually say something substantial on the issue, risking a confrontation with his party, his coalition partner, the public, the media, and of course his European colleagues? Or will he once more try to please everyone?

As Cameron has just announced that he wishes to remain prime minister until 2020, chances are he will opt for the latter.

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