Cameron’s own goal may give Eurosceptics a surprise victory

Inside Westminster: The Prime Minister was in the right but played it wrong


The parallel was on many minds when the EU’s 28 national leaders gathered in Ypres in Flanders on Thursday for a solemn ceremony to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War. “It was like the time British and German troops played football in the Christmas truce,” said one official present.

Like the soldiers 100 years ago, the leaders knew the ceasefire would not last. Normal hostilities resumed yesterday at their Brussels summit and, after another battle between Britain and Germany, it was David Cameron who was in no man’s land.

To win arguments in Europe, you need to win friends and influence people. Mr Cameron lost friends and alienated people in his doomed campaign to stop Jean-Claude Juncker landing the top job. The affair could have profound implications for Britain’s future – or lack of one – in the EU.

Mr Cameron’s diplomacy is under fire at home and abroad. But, after spending the last two days in Brussels, it is clear to me that Mr Cameron is far from alone in having doubts about the former Luxembourg Prime Minister.

Even diplomats normally critical of “the Brits” admit Mr Cameron was fighting for an important principle. Mr Juncker emerged as the candidate favoured by the European Parliament to become president of the European Commission, its civil service, which has the sole right to propose EU laws.

Mr Juncker claimed a “popular mandate” as the “lead candidate” of the European People’s Party (EPP), the main centre-right group, which won most seats in last month’s Euro Parliament elections. Yet very few voters knew they were potentially electing the head of the Commission.

There are real fears in Brussels that Mr Juncker could become a prisoner of the European Parliament because he will owe his job to it, and that the EU’s politically neutral civil service could be politicised.

Mr Cameron’s other objection was that Mr Juncker is no reformer at a time when the election results show that the EU has to change. EU sources told me Mr Cameron had good reason to believe that Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Italy would join Britain to block him. Their leaders all had reservations about Mr Juncker. Angela Merkel, as ever the key player, changed her mind for domestic reasons and backed Mr Juncker and the other doubters followed.

The Prime Minister was in the right but played it wrong. Some other leaders believe he played the man (Mr Juncker) rather than the ball (the Parliament grabbing power from national governments). Cameron critics disliked what they saw as his bellicose “threats” that the British public might vote to leave the 28-nation bloc if Mr Juncker got the job.

Mr Cameron turned down a “backroom deal” – a promise of future concessions in return for not opposing Mr Juncker.

He prefers “veto moments” that provide a short-term boost at home but which alienate natural EU allies in Europe. In 2011, the Prime Minister blocked a fiscal pact for the eurozone but 25 nations went ahead anyway without him. His “phantom veto” gave him a brief opinion poll boost but soon melted away. Perhaps the same will happen after the Juncker saga.

Splendid isolation is not the way to win arguments in the EU. Mr Cameron would have more influence if Conservative MEPs were part of the EPP, from which he withdrew them in 2009. Instead they are in a Euro Parliament group of odds and sods which includes a rival party to Ms Merkel’s.

If Mr Juncker proves a disaster, or doesn’t last his five-year-term as Commission President, Mr Cameron may be able to tell his fellow EU leaders: “I told you so.”

But time is not on the Prime Minister’s side. Mr Juncker will be at the helm in the crucial two-year period between next year’s election and the 2017 referendum Mr Cameron has promised. Mr Juncker will be in no mood to help Britain.

At the dinner in Ypres, Mr Cameron won the respect of other leaders, emphasising that he wanted Britain to play “a central role” in the EU. But there are growing signs that the man who wanted to recommend the public vote to stay in the EU may get such a bad deal that he ends up urging an “out” vote – not least to ensure he survives as Tory leader.

It wasn’t meant to be like this when Mr Cameron promised the referendum last year. He could become the accidental hero of the Eurosceptics, the man who leads the UK into an accidental exit from the EU.

World Cup exit leaves Miliband exposed

Which political leader had most reason to regret England’s early exit from the World Cup? No, not David Cameron, even though he would have loved to kill off the old cliché that England only wins the Cup under a Labour Government.

Ed Miliband’s aides are convinced the rumblings inside his party about his leadership were given so much currency because the media had little else to write about. “We filled the vacuum,” one ally said. “The inside pages, not just the back pages, would have been about the World Cup if England had done better.”

There was palpable relief in Labour land when the phone hacking trial verdicts put the spotlight back on to Mr Cameron and his decision to take Andy Coulson into Downing Street with him in 2010.

The bad news for Labour is that this may prove only a temporary diversion. The doubts about Mr Miliband in his own party are real. Yet it is odd that so many Labour tongues are ready to wag 11 months before a general election.

It’s a bad sign when a political party has an outbreak of BSE – Blame Someone Else – on this occasion, in case of a possible defeat next year.

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