Saturday, December 17, 2011

On the big issues, is Cameron actually a worse PM than Brown?

A few weeks ago, a backbench Conservative MP got himself into a spot of bother after being caught on tape using a four-letter word to describe his leader David Cameron.

Given that the offending word used by backbencher Patrick Mercer began with an ‘a’ rather a ‘c’, the implication was not so much that he finds the Prime Minister personally unpleasant as that he regards him as a bit of a clown.

Mr Mercer’s accompanying description of Mr Cameron as “the worst Prime Minister since W.E. Gladstone” was generally viewed at the time as a rather unwarranted slur on both of these two worthy occupants of Number 10 Downing Street.

But in the wake of his potentially career-defining veto at last week’s EU summit on the future of the Eurozone, the question ‘Is Cameron actually any good?’ has suddenly assumed an added pertinence.

It is, of course, far too early to tell whether the Prime Minister did the right thing by blocking the proposed Treaty on stabilising the currency or whether it will turn out to be, in the words of his own deputy Nick Clegg, “bad for Britain.”

It may be a decade or more before we are able to arrive at a settled historical judgement on the issue, by which time Mr Cameron will almost certainly no longer be in office.

Will Hutton, the former Observer editor and author of influential 1990s tome ‘The State We’re In,’ believes it will turn out to be a mistake of historic proportions, and that by 2020 a flatbroke Britain will be begging to join a newly-thriving Eurozone.

This is however currently very much a minority view. Mr Cameron may have turned us into what one Cabinet minister this week called ‘the Billy No Mates of Europe,’ but if the opinion polls are anything to go by, the public seems to be applauding rather than condemning him for that.

As far as short-term tactical considerations are concerned, Mr Cameron’s actions at the summit cannot be faulted.

He knew that if he agreed to the proposed Treaty, his party’s increasingly self-confident right-wing would use it as an excuse to demand a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – the last thing Mr Cameron wants to see.

Rather than entertain that possibility, he chose instead to risk infuriating his Liberal Democrat coalition partners, knowing full well that they are in no position to bring down the government and fight a general election, especially over the issue of Europe.

Political pundits who tell us that Europe is a potential coalition-breaker are forgetting the fact that the Lib Dems’ pro-Europeanism is wildly unpopular in the Southern seats where the Tories are their main opponents.

So looked at purely from a domestic political point of view, Mr Cameron’s gamble seems so far to be duly paying off.

After a fortnight in which the Chancellor admitted his borrowing forecasts were wildly off course, unions staged the biggest strikes seen in a generation, and the Prime Minister was outvoted 26-1 at an important international gathering, the Tories pulled two points ahead of Labour in the polls.

This is a deeply worrying state of affairs for Labour leader Ed Miliband, one which victory in the Feltham and Heston by-election on Thursday night will have done little to alleviate.

As I wrote in this column the week before last, Labour ought to have a compelling narrative on the economy, but the public is currently not listening. So too it is with Europe.

Ultimately, however, Prime Ministers are not judged on whether or not they manage to secure a short-term tactical advantage over their opponents, but on whether or not they are seen to have acted in the national interest – a judgement that will rest in part on consequences as yet unseen.

It is already clear, for instance, that Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond intends to use the issue to ratchet up calls for full-blown Scottish independence, arguing that the UK’s new-found isolation will harm the economy north of the border.

For Mr Cameron, who leads what is still nominally called the Conservative and Unionist Party, this would be as perfect an illustration of the law of unintended political consequences as you are ever likely to see.

Perhaps the so-called ‘Little Englanders’ in his ranks should be careful what they wish for.

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1 comment:

John Problem said...

It is extraordinary that Cameron should have gone to bat for the financial services industry and as a result left the country outside the European tent. Especially as that industry has grossly exaggerated its importance to the UK. The implications for the citizens of this country are simply dreadful and we shall be marginalised just when the world is entering its new phase of big economic blocks.
Can you see it? The US, China, India, South America, Europe - and jolly old blighty.