Events this week could be a foretaste of future failures for David Cameron

The prospect of Britain sleepwalking towards exit from the EU is growing
  • @Douglas4Paisley

In the shadow of last week’s personal defeat and diplomatic humiliation for David Cameron, this week there is a growing chorus of concern about this Prime Minister's chances of being able to deliver for Britain in Europe.

Although he is certainly not the first British leader to enter into tough negotiations in Brussels, he is the only British Prime Minister to lose a vote in the EU Council. This reveals more about the competence of David Cameron than the character of the EU.

His own party now know that if David Cameron failed to stop a not universally popular candidate becoming Commission President, there is little hope that he could go on to secure unanimous support for a fundamental redesign of Europe on an arbitrary timetable that other European governments just don't accept.‎

And across the country, British businesses are increasingly concerned that David Cameron’s failure shows that under the present Prime Minister, the prospect of Britain sleepwalking towards exit from the EU is growing, and with it, so are the risks to jobs, growth and investment in the UK.

Events this week could be a foretaste of future failures for David Cameron, and the Conservative Party's approach to Europe now represents a real and present danger to British prosperity.

Labour understands that reform of the EU is a vital and urgent priority. That is why we have set out clear and achievable objectives for change - including key reforms that could help to immediately improve the accountability, legitimacy and effectiveness of the EU as a whole on issues which are priorities for the British people such as immigration, jobs and sustained economic growth.

But so far, all we have had from the Prime Minister are vague and abstract musings, either because he is unwilling, or simply unable to offer any concrete proposals of his own.

And now even his own supporters admit that when it comes to reforming the EU, David Cameron is simply not up to the task because he has allowed his personal standing in Europe to slump so low.

His defeat last week exposes the fact that the Prime Minister has developed the wrong strategy and deployed the wrong tactics to be able to deliver for Britain in Europe.

His approach is driven by a mistaken belief that threatening exit, and committing to an arbitrary timetable for a referendum in 2017, maximises your influence when the evidence demonstrates it has done the opposite.

And when it came to Jean-Claude Juncker, he made a series of tactical errors in negotiations that weakened, not strengthened, Britain’s hand.

David Cameron went to Brussels – with a mandate from Labour and the Lib Dems – to secure consensus around the best candidate for Commission President. But he failed to use the weeks since the European elections to work to build a coalition – with countries like Denmark, Sweden, Holland, Hungary and Italy. He actually turned a Europe divided over Jean-Claude Juncker, into a Council virtually united against David Cameron.

There have been no shortage of rebukes to David Cameron - from inside his own Cabinet Vince Cable dismissed his approach saying it had weakened Britain’s “punch” in Europe. The Polish Foreign Minister, traditionally a key ally, described the Prime Minister’s approach to Europe as “incompetent” – and worse - and the UK’s former chief negotiator in Brussels, Lord Kerr, criticised David Cameron’s decision to “play the man not the ball“ when it came to Mr Juncker.

But the inevitable criticisms that David Cameron is now facing over his handling of the Juncker vote are not an excuse for him to now step back in Brussels - they are actually a reason for him to now change both his strategy and his tactics towards securing change in Europe.

Britain has a lot still at stake in the coming weeks and months, in particular with regards to the UK’s new EU Commissioner

A key priority for David Cameron must now be to commit himself to the negotiations with EU allies – and indeed Mr Juncker himself – over what portfolio the new UK Commissioner will get.

Labour has been clear that reform of Europe to make it more effective at promoting jobs and growth should now be the priority.

So David Cameron must work to secure one of the most senior economic jobs that matter most to Britain.

As well as securing the best portfolio for Britain, David Cameron must also agree to British parliamentary scrutiny of his chosen candidate for Commissioner.

The role will be more significant than ever given the lost ground that the UK’s Commissioner will have to make up following David Cameron’s humiliating defeat in Brussels, so it is right that MPs here at home have a chance to scrutinise the candidate before they are confirmed.

The real concern now is that if he can’t get agreement on an issue where EU leaders share Britain’s interests, then what chance does David Cameron have to get the vital reforms that will make Europe work better for Britain.

This Prime Minister still doesn’t seem to understand that when it comes to standing up for Britain, it’s not simply about being willing to pick fights, but wining fights that matters. What matters more than holding votes, is winning votes for change and reform.

Last week David Cameron let Britain down. This week he needs to start changing his strategy and tactics towards Europe if he is not to let Britain down in the future.

Douglas Alexander is the shadow Foreign Secretary