I have just been at the Conservative Friends of Israel Business Lunch, which can best be
described as a triumphalist ‘smugfest’ in the wake of David Cameron’s bulldog moment in Europe last week. The Tory leadership should be very wary of this moment. We have just entered a period of
unprecedented political division in this country. For a party that wishes to be on the centre ground of British politics, this is not a good place to be. The headlines in the Guardian (‘Cameron cuts UK adrift’) and the Daily Mail (‘The day he put Britain first’) expressed this in two sentences the chasm that
now exists in the political class. So much for the Cameroons’ healing centrism.
But does this really matter? The opinion polls suggest a substantial section
of the British public backs Cameron’s stance (although many do not) and this will help him gird his loins for further isolation in a Europe that few in this country feel passionately about. I would
suggest he and his ever-triangulating circle are already thinking of the best way to slap the eurosceptic right in the face. And if they are not, they should be. An international crisis is not the
moment for triumphalism.
Nick Clegg may be feeling pretty miserable right now. If he applied the logic of David Cameron’s decision in Europe, acting in his party’s self-interest, he would leave the Coalition right now. The
trouble is that in scuppering the government he would be doing domestically precisely what he has accused the Prime Minister of doing on the international stage.
But Ed Miliband should not be complacent either. Here’s his problem. David Cameron has demonstrated himself to be just the sort of right-wing, europhobic, budget-cutting Tory Gordon Brown warned us
he would be. But still big chunks of the voting public don’t quite seem to buy this. Whatever he does, Cameron just comes across as a rather reasonable, moderate kind of guy – a Tony Blair in
reverse. For years, the Tories tried to warn us that Blair was a dangerous tax-and-spend Labour politician, a loony-leftie in sheep’s clothing (remember Demon Eyes). In many respects this was true,
but it just didn’t wash with the public.
This is not a cosmetic point: it goes to the heart of Ed Miliband’s problem. Whatever else it was, David Cameron’s decision last week was momentous. It fundamentally shifted the UK’s place in
Europe, caused a vast, probably unfixable, rift in the government and showed that the Prime Minister can bend to internal party pressure. But it does not necessarily put the Labour Party any closer