There comes a point in any stand-off where the likely loser is well advised to give in gracefully or risk a defeat even more humiliating than the one already at the door. Maybe, in his efforts to stop Jean-Claude Juncker becoming the next head of the European Commission, David Cameron believes that this point has not yet arrived. Or perhaps he judges that it is so far in the past that he has nothing more to lose.
Certainly, he sounded unabashed at Prime Minister’s Questions this week, when he insisted in no uncertain terms that his fight would go on. And there was something almost admirable about his blunt tenacity. Yet it becomes ever harder to believe that he can win.
I have done my utmost to divine some far-sighted stratagem behind his continued pursuit of this quarrel, some hint that he has secured some undertaking from someone that will, in the end, make it all worthwhile. And maybe Christine Lagarde will sail in to the Port of London, Venus-like, on a giant shell, to save the day. But it looks less and less likely.
With the German Chancellor apparently keen on an early decision – and the only early decision possible being the nomination of the stolid Luxembourger – the prospect has to be for a Cameron defeat at next week’s EU summit. That the first day of the meeting is at Ypres of all places, commemorating the dead of the First World War, only makes the whole scenario worse.
It was, though, pretty bad already. A chain of mistakes on Europe has left the UK and its Prime Minister looking powerless. The first was Cameron’s promise, when still in opposition, to withdraw Conservative MEPs from the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament, the EPP. Not only has this decision given Tory MEPs some unsavoury bedfellows in Brussels, it has left the UK with no say in who the EPP’s nominee for the top job should be.
Once upon a time there might have been an advantage in standing to one side. Not now. Before the recent European elections, an understanding was reached in Brussels according to which the leader of the biggest Parliamentary grouping would be given the nod for the presidency of the European Commission. The plan was to make the decision look more democratic than the usual cobbled-together deal between national leaders behind closed doors.
In pictures: Embarrassing political exits
In pictures: Embarrassing political exits
1/9 Mark Harper
Immigration minister Mark Harper resigned after emerged his cleaner was in the country illegally. Mr Harper quit after he discovered his cleaner, whom he employed at his London flat for seven years, did not have indefinite leave to remain in the UK.
2/9 Mark Menzies
Former Conservative MP Mark Menzies resigned as a ministerial aide following allegations made by a Brazilian rent boy in March. The MP for Fylde in Lancashire resigned his position as the parliamentary private secretary (PPS) amid allegations which appeared in a tabloid newspaper, which he strenuously denied.
3/9 Liam Fox
Former Defence Secretary Liam Fox resigned in 2011 over his working relationship with his friend Adam Werritty, which saw the Tory MP ordered to repay £3,000 of expenses for allowing Mr Werritty to live rent-free at his taxpayer-funded second home for a year. Mr Fox faced further embarrassment when it was revealed successfully claimed 3p of taxpayers’ cash for a car journey of fewer than 100 metres.
4/9 Denis MacShane
Labour MP for Rotherham Denis MacShane resigned over what a parliamentary enquiry described as “the gravest case of misconduct” ever to be investigated at the time. The ex-Europe Minister was jailed for six months after making false expense claims of nearly £13,000. The former MP previously pleaded guilty to false accounting by filing 19 fake receipts for “research and translation” services. MacShane, 65, used the money to fund a series of trips to Europe, including one to judge a literary competition in Paris.
5/9 Patrick Mercer
Patrick Mercer resigned the Tory whip in May last year after he was filmed by the BBC's 'Panorama' apparently agreeing to lobby on behalf of Fiji for a pro-Fijian cross-party committee.
6/9 Michael Martin
Former Labour party MP Michael Martin became the first Commons Speaker to be forced out of office for more than 300 years following criticism of his handling of the MP’s expenses scandal of 2009.
7/9 Jacqui Smith
Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith stood down in the cabinet reshuffle amid a flurry of controversy after the MPs expenses scandal revealed her husband Richard Timney, who also ran her constituency office, had watched two pay-per-view adult movies which had then, unknown to her, been subject to a claim for reimbursement. The ‘porn scandal’ not only saw the former Labour MP Ms Smith, who was the first female Home Secretary, eventually resign but also saw her lose her back bench position in May 2010.
8/9 Sir Peter Viggers
Sir Peter Viggers also found himself caught up in the MPs expenses scandal when The Daily Telegraph reported that the Conservative Party Member had attempted to claim for a pond feature identified as a floating duck island, although this was notoriously rejected. The Gosport MP said he would repay £10,000 in claims for garden maintenance and repairs and agreed to stand down at the next election.
9/9 Prime Minister David Cameron
David Cameron gave his shock resignation in … wait, no he didn’t. Wales Online were forced to apologise after a story that the government was rocked by news the PM had quit was used in a “training exercise” but went live on the internet by accident before it was quickly pulled.
The new arrangement was designed to boost the role of MEPs, and the voters who elected them; in other words, to add a bit more democracy. To that end, the leaders of the main groupings campaigned around Europe, and debated, a little in the manner of US presidential candidates.
We didn’t see much of this in Britain, because the leaders were not invited to speak here and the TV debate was only on the Parliament channel. It is easy to argue that neither Juncker, nor his centre-left rival, Martin Schulz, are household names – not just here, but elsewhere in Europe – but the plan was to create a more direct connection between the vote and the next head of the European Commission.
It wasn’t as stupid an idea as it is sometimes presented to be. But it diminished what national leaders, including Cameron, had regarded as their prerogative: the horse-trading that had produced the nominee for Commission president in the past. The result is the stand-off that has pitted Britain, not for the first time, against almost everyone else, but also exposed different ideas about where power in the EU should lie. Do elected national leaders have a better claim to be the democratic representatives of their people than elected members of the European Parliament? Angela Merkel has seemed at times in the past few weeks to waver. This is one reason why everything has been as messy and as inconclusive – so far – as it has.
The only sense I have heard on this recently came courtesy of Sir John Major – an increasingly valuable elder statesman and a scarred veteran of Conservative Europe battles. He said that Cameron had been right to oppose Jean-Claude Juncker, because the EU needed reform and Juncker was not a reformer. Well, you never actually know that until the person has the job, but let’s give Sir John the benefit of the doubt because of what he said next. In essence, he suggested that if, as appeared inevitable, Cameron lost his battle, Merkel and others might be willing to offer some compensation, and this is what he should play for.
Let’s see. You could argue – and Cameron might argue this in mitigation – that the more Britain gets other Europeans’ backs up (as it has over Juncker), the less aggro he will get from Tory Eurosceptics at home. That may be true, but it does not solve the problem. Cameron fought a highly personalised battle that left him with no dignified way out. He resorted to what Merkel saw as threats that a UK exit would be more likely if he did not get his way. Such is the ill-feeling around Europe that he will be lucky to come away with even the “John Major option”.
Labour hears the call – and Harman’s the one to answer
Where Nick and Boris have gone before, now Harriet is daring to tread. And not before time. The absence of Labour from LBC radio’s political phone-in line-up was threatening to become an embarrassment, even as the campaign for next year’s election starts to get serious.
The choice of who to nominate for the slot is not as simple as it might look. No party can risk letting just any politician sign up to answer sometimes dangerous questions from the Great British public. And – say what you like about Nick Clegg – as the pioneer of the genre, he has actually set the bar quite high. He has, mostly, avoided gaffes. He has a personable radio manner, and he has shown a smidgeon of a popular touch (that “onesie” is, presumably, still in its box).
The politician has to be senior enough to carry authority, but also just that bit removed from ministerial power – in case something goes wrong. Deputy Prime Minister is perfect, as other ministers can claim or disclaim what he says, as they wish. Mayor of London isn’t bad. Deputy leader of the Labour Party is also about right, and a bit of name recognition doesn’t go amiss. I see only two possible downsides: I’m not convinced that LBC’s new recruit is yet fluent enough in human, as opposed to Labour-ese; and, before long, someone is going to refer to her, accidentally, as Harperson.
Not a Scotch egg
Does the Waitrose supermarket chain know something the rest of us don’t know? Last weekend I spotted a bag of what looked like Scotch eggs, which were labelled “picnic eggs”. That very morning, as it happened, I had read a newspaper article about whisky being distilled in the Lake District. Could it be that Scotland is already being written out of the script?
I wait hungrily to find out how Scotch pancakes will be rebranded - mini-crepes, anyone? But it is surely no coincidence that Welsh cakes have been introduced by Marks & Spencer. They’re somewhat different, but maybe they’re being tried out as a replacement. As for shortbread, we will perhaps have to learn to bake our own. And do let me know, if you live or drive near Scotch Corner, when the signs have been painted over to read English Corner instead.