Imagine that Cameron decides to fight the EU Constitution in Parliament. He lets loose his MPs to vote and campaign openly against it. The Labour rebellion, currently projected to be 30 MPs might grow to 60 or even 100, and the Bill could fall. Hurrah! Eurosceptic cheers would even be heard across the Channel.
As the cheering and hollering died away, though people would gradually become aware of two facts. Gordon Brown would still be Prime Minister, and Britain would still be lodged inside the EU. For Cameron, it would be a classic Pyrrhic victory. He’d win the battle but would end up in a worse position than if he’d avoided one altogether.
If Cameron tripped up the EU Constitution, the BBC would never forgive him. All of Europe’s leaders would become vocal in unison accusing the Conservative Party of being a wrecking force, and voters would feel concerned in case this was true. It could pass the initiative to Gordon Brown, just when Cameron’s succeeded in getting Labour into the back foot for the first time in 14 years. Brown would make the issue into one of ‘Britain -In or Out?’, which would not be the preferred battleground for Cameron pre-election. Winning in Parliament against the Constitution would backfire.
The debate about Britain’s future with Europe will happen one day. There is no doubt. At some point Cameron will decide that the right moment has arrived for the Conservative Party to define its position on the subject and set about negotiating and building a totally new approach. But trying to do that after orchestrating the collapse of the EU Constitution, while still vulnerable in Opposition, would not be the best moment to bring about a calm considered and constructive debate.
Cameron is said by Fraser Nelson in The Spectator not to have a Plan B, and just to be hoping that all European issues just go away. I’m not sure he’s right he’s right about that.
You can see one thing clearly enough. The Conservatives believe they can win the next election, and are putting that objective at Number 1. Win power first. Start tinkering with the status quo, or revolutionising it, second. Cameron will do well to bide his time, concentrate not on risky attack strategies, but focus on keeping the ship stable.
With Cameron’s not being drawn out into open conflict, Brown is being deprived of the open Conservative splits on Europe he hoped the Constitution debate would bring. Instead of facing a situation where he can ramp up attacks on Cameron, Brown will find, instead that the drift into Europe through Lisbon will become harder and harder to present in a positive light, once the follow-on effects start to become clear.
Not to mention that the economy is at last moving against Brown after years of healthy growth. Britain’s economy is heavily indebted and out of kilter, and the inevitable re-balancing will be intensely painful for many. Brown himself is hard-up for cash, let alone the electorate. His government finances are getting to the embarrassing stage after the Northern Rock has sucked in GBP 25 billion of his funds. He has no room for manoevre, and he is having to crawl to the Chinese, hoping they will move a key part of their investment operations to London, and lend him out of trouble. Brown’s famous ‘contingency’ fund from his ‘Prudence’ days is well gone, as are half of the gold reserves which he sold off inadvisedly in 2002. The cupboard is bare as the economic clouds are darkening.
Looking a little further ahead, Blair as EU President could also start to impact on the political situation. Blair (in Dan Hannan’s opinion) has done enough to win the EU Presidency for himself by yielding Britain’s GBP 3 billion a year rebate. Britain could be faced with the sickening sight of the Blairs back in power, earning millions and glorifying in the limelight, while we are left with high tax bills, low growth, and mounting debts as we have to pay over the GBP 3 billion a year he gave away. I cannot see how a Blair Presidency will be popular in Britain, or helpful in any way to Brown and Labour’s chances of winning the next election.
With these considerations, Cameron would do well to do exactly as he is doing, bide his time, and stick ruthlessly to completing the only task that actually matters – that is winning the next election.
If Labour MPs could see the dangers of Cameron gaining politically from their party’s errors in its dealings with Europe, they would move fast and hard and launch a successful rebellion against the Constitution now, and bring an end to the great Labour Party betrayal of Britain. If they made the running in resisting the EU Constitution in Parliament, and managed to cause its collapse, Cameron’s gameplan would be dented. It seems though that Labour MPs are not bright enough to realise the subtleties of the Cameron strategy, and they will go ahead and sign their own political death warrants by pushing the Constitution through, puzzled no doubt that Conservative euroscepticism appears to be sleeping.
It’s not asleep of course, only waiting for the right moment to sink its teeth. That moment will come in 2010 after a hundred or more Labour MPs have lost their seats.