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Cameron The Pragmatist Pushes His Rivals Towards The Margins Of Politics

Last Updated: Friday, March 28th, 2014

A point sometimes arrives, in a game of bridge, when it becomes clear that the cards are falling right for a player. Almost everything attempted by that player comes off, not only because of his or her own skill, but because of the distribution of cards in his or her opponents’ hands, and the inability of those opponents to communicate with each other.

Such a point has now arrived for David Cameron. This week saw the first debate between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg about Britain’s membership of the European Union. Farage spoke as forcefully as he could in favour of leaving the EU, while Clegg spoke as forcefully as he could in favour of staying.

This contest left Cameron as the voice of reason and moderation: the man able to appeal to all those who are reluctant to treat the EU with either extreme hostility or extreme enthusiasm. The Prime Minister’s policy is to negotiate better terms of membership, so that we vote in a referendum to stay inside an EU which takes better account of British interests.

Such a policy runs the risk of being dismissed as weak and unrealistic. Cameron was accused of walking down the middle of the road, which is a place one is liable to get run over. People said he had only devised this compromise in order to placate his own Eurosceptic backbenchers, and that they would soon reject it as an unprincipled fudge. It was also said that Cameron would simply not be able to find the allies in Europe needed to give his policy any chance of success.

By the end of this week, such criticisms were becoming harder to sustain. The Financial Times printed a piece headlined “Protect Britain’s interests in a two-speed Europe”, bearing the bylines of George Osborne and Wolfgang Schäuble, the British and German finance ministers.

Britain is starting to gather the allies needed for a successful renegotiation. Germany, the most powerful member of the EU and the one with the greatest responsibility for making the euro work, has recognised that at the same time as the eurozone is strengthened, the interests of countries outside the euro, such as Britain, have got to be protected.

The astonishing possibility opens up for Cameron of being both pro-British and pro-European. Dogmatic defenders of national sovereignty will deny that such a thing is possible. But pragmatic defenders of the national interest can respond that it is better for Britain to remain a big player in the EU, than to choose isolation.

The British economy is recovering, and the opinion polls are narrowing in Cameron’s favour. Week by week, he dominates Ed Miliband at Prime Minister’s Questions, for Labour has nothing much to say about the economy, or indeed about Europe.

The shadow cabinet live lives of blameless obscurity. They are not allowed to say anything, so there is no reason why anyone should listen to them. I receive the Labour Party’s press releases by email, and cannot remember the last time any of its shadow spokespersons said anything in the slightest bit interesting. Ed Balls, the biggest personality on the Labour front bench, has been gagged, while Miliband sounds like a very intelligent but utterly indecisive North London intellectual, which is what he is.

So Labour says nothing, while Clegg and Farage have to turn up the volume in order to get anyone to listen to them. Clegg in particular has been placed under enormous pressure by Cameron, and faces the awkward choice of either proclaiming the Coalition’s achievements, or else denouncing the Conservatives.

On reflection, it is not quite right to say that the cards have fallen right for Cameron. Such a formula does not do justice to the skill and nerve with which he has played the weak hand dealt to him by the electorate in May 2010. With steely professionalism, he and Osborne have pursued a moderate economic policy, and a moderate European policy, which have left Labour with nothing to say.

Cameron might by now have been exposed as a feeble Prime Minister, blown about by every contrary gust. He has instead established himself as the commanding figure in British politics, the pragmatist who actually gets things done, and who slowly pushes his rivals – Miliband, Clegg, Farage, Boris Johnson – towards the margins of politics.

By Andrew Gimson



Iain Dale: Now then. As I was saying…   “If you’ve got a pair of knackers the odds on you being promoted to the cabinet are near to zero unless your surname is Hancock. Or perhaps Michael Fallon. If these things were done on merit Fallon would be a shoo-in for a top Cabinet job, but if that were the case it’d have happened last time around. No, this is going to be a reshuffle in which several women get promotion, and in each case I think it will be fully merited. Who are they? Esther McVey, Anna Soubry, Nicky Morgan and possibly the much tipped (not least by herself) Liz Truss.”

Lord Ashcroft: “Vote UKIP, get Labour.” Does that argument work for the Conservatives?  “How effective is the ‘vote UKIP, get Labour’ message likely to be? My recent Europe on Trial poll, with its bumper 20,000 sample, provided a good opportunity to look… Just under a quarter (23 per cent) of UKIP voters said they did believe their vote would make Miliband becoming PM more likely, but that this would not make any difference. Fair enough…But if one in seven Tory-UKIP defectors might be persuaded to reconsider on the spot by this argument, that is not a failure. With marginal voters in marginal seats, the margins matter.”

Mark Wallace: Ten lessons from the Farage v Clegg debate   “As I’ve argued since launching the Better Off Out campaign eight years ago, the anti-EU case will only be successful if we can lay out a clear, convincing and attractive vision of life outside the EU. Farage had some successes putting that across (asked how the UK would trade without being part of a bigger bloc, he pointed out that even Iceland strikes its own trade deals successfully) and did best when he was warm about the UK’s potential. But he also faltered at times, retreating into the negativity which condemned euroscepticism to valiant failure for so long.”

Andrew Gimson: Interview with James Delingpole, a conservative who thinks the British Establishment stinks   “James Delingpole performs a brilliant one-man show of the contradictions and paradoxes which pervade modern conservatism. In the course of this interview, the celebrated blogger cheerfully announced he is a member of both UKIP and the Conservative Party. Delingpole was considered ‘too mad’ to become a UKIP candidate, but regards himself as the conscience of both parties. He believes in hierarchy, but loathes the Establishment…At Oxford, he was one of the few people to be a friend of those two generally incompatible personalities, David Cameron and Boris Johnson. During this interview he described Harold Macmillan as ‘a soft fascist’ and Oliver Letwin as ‘the devil incarnate’.”

Paul Goodman: Fighting, f**king and family, sometimes all at once. Game of Thrones returns soon.  Game of Thrones has the lot: a child King; scheming barons; brawls, boozing and battles; a dwarf Lord; dragons; a girl killer; direwolves; Greek fire; ravens; pickled embryos; animalistic sex (with a touch of incest thrown in); bad language (every second vowel needs a *); black magic; – and whores everywhere.  Daggers are plunged through eyes, minstrels’ tongues torn out, heads and hands lopped off, men torched to death or tortured on crosses. How very different from the home life of ConservativeHome’s own dear readers!”

By Andrew Gimson

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