Dave’s dilemma

January 22, 2009 at 12:55 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, David Cameron | Leave a comment
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Considering all the prolonged speculation that he was due to return to the shadow cabinet, it’s a bit weird that Kenneth Clarke’s remarks at a conference in Nottingham have only just received wide circulation. Still, his thoughts on how a future Conservative government might balance its fetish for both Atlanticism and Euroscepticism make for an interesting read:

Clarke also spoke of his party’s relationship with the new President of the US, Barack Obama. Calling uncritical support for Bush-Blair interventionism “a disaster”, he said: “A lot will depend on relations with Europe, because Obama doesn’t want his strongest European ally led by a right wing nationalist, he wants them to be a key player inside Europe and he’ll start looking at whoever is in Germany or France if we start being isolationist.”

He added: “I think the need to be working with Obama will influence my party on Europe. It is still firmly Eurosceptic but it’s now moderate, harmless Euroscepticism. It’s a bit silly sometimes like which group do you join in the European parliament but full blooded stuff like renegotiating the treaty of accession is as dead as a dodo. We’ve got lots of ideas on European policy on energy, security, relations with Russia, climate change, all that kind of thing [but] somebody like me is far more relaxed about all that [and if the Tories] get into office the pressure of the American alliance will make them more European.”

It’s worth remembering that Clarke was one of the few Tories to vote against the Iraq war, which gives his criticisms of Blair’s ‘disastrous’ foreign policy more weight than had it been some Johnny-come-lately. He also described a more ‘enlightened’ approach to international security than any of his competitors for the Tory leadership and did so several years before Labour’s current boy king. If the Tories do win the next election, I’d be more at ease with Clarke as Foreign Secretary than seeing him wreak havoc in any other cabinet position – which is probably why it’ll never happen.

Whilst there’s scant evidence to back him up, Clarke’s prediction for how US-UK-EU relations might fare in an age of both Obama and David Cameron is at least plausible. As I’ve noted before, Obama will probably seek to work with Britain as a part of the European community, not as some obstinate little island which can’t get on with its neighbours but has a creepy crush on American power. If Cameron can acknowledge and adapt to this new reality, then Britain can retain some measure of influence in international affairs. Problem is, to do so will inevitably upset his eurosceptic supporters, for whom he withdrew his MEP’s from Europe’s centre-right coalition, played hardball on the EU referendum and promised to pull out of the EU social chapter.

What it boils down to is a question of leadership. Whilst it’s true that Cameron has gone against his party’s worst instincts in order to decontaminate a desperate and disillusioned brand, he’s also given us several examples of reversing policies and caving in to outside pressure. His U-turn on grammar schools, his surrender to colleagues who wanted to work a second job, and his reversal of an earlier pledge not to cut taxes all give the impression that this is a man who’s not yet able to give firm leadership in the face of opposition.

To that end, we can’t yet know whether a Cameron government will reluctantly engage with Europe in order to resolve global problems, or whether he’ll – at the slightest hint of back bench rancour – simply retreat into the Tories’ isolationist comfort zone. It will all depend on whether he has the guts.

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