Why Dave doesn't give a hoot about the EU budget

Cameron's stance of irritation and semi-detached resignation is reassuring to British voters, who regard Europe in much the same way

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The Independent Online

Barack Obama once said that what most surprised him about being President was "how the news cycle is focused on what happens this minute. Sometimes it's difficult to keep everybody focused on the long term." On Friday, the European Union budget talks were the most important story. Today they are almost forgotten and next week the news cycle will turn.

In fact, the EU budget is a trivial matter. The EU might spend a few cents per citizen more or less each year for the next seven years, of which the British share will be a fraction of not very much. The breakdown of the Brussels summit reminded me of the recurring scene in Catch-22, in which Yossarian bandages the leg of his comrade Snowden, who turns out to be dying from a flak wound to his guts. As Europe's leaders failed to agree minor adjustments to the budget, German taxpayers face an open-ended bill for hundreds of billions of euros to keep the entire eurozone economy afloat.

The fate of the euro is what matters in the long term, and at some point it could cause a crisis in British politics, but in the meantime David Cameron's Conservative colleagues should reflect on the wisdom of his plea in his first conference speech as leader, six years ago, to talk about "the things that most people care about" rather than "banging on about Europe".

For all that most people care about Europe, which is not much, the Conservatives are well placed to represent their irritation and semi-detached resignation. Cameron's well-prepared stand on the perks of Brussels bureaucrats, supported by other countries and expressed with perfect reasonableness, went down well at home. He well knows, however, that his party's tendency to passionate division on anything to do with Europe could drive away voters, not because they disagree with either side but because they disapprove of disunity.

That probably explains the oddity over which I puzzled last week. I noted that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary had said that we should leave the EU unless we can make it a trading partner rather than a political one – and that Cameron had failed to make him "clarify" his view to bring it in line with No 10's.

Instead, the Prime Minister pretended not to notice. Because if he had noticed what Gove told The Mail on Sunday, he would have had to notice that other Cabinet ministers, including Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, agreed. And the voters would have noticed disunity.

Hence also the sensible soundbite from William Hague, the Foreign Secretary. The man who stood on a flat-bed truck 11 years ago and warned of our "last chance to save the pound" now advocates "strategic patience". That is a posh way of saying "wait and see", which was John Major's much derided policy on the single currency.

However it is dressed up, and however passive and useless it seems, it is the right approach. There is nothing the UK can do about the unhappy currency union into which our partners have got themselves. The only sensible thing to do is to wait and see if the eurozone breaks up, or if a political union of the eurozone emerges from the fog over the Channel. If it does, we won't be part of it at the start, or probably ever, but it will require new treaties, not just for eurozone members but for the rest of the EU. That might mean a referendum in this country, but if it did it would not be for several years.

So when, probably after 2015, Britain reaches a decision point in its relationship with what will probably be a two-tier continental structure, then there might be something for British politicians to argue about. Until then, it is mostly a waste of breath.

And then, provided that the Conservatives are still in power and have avoided the temptation to rip each others' throats out, neither of which can be guaranteed, they should be well placed. The British people are doubtful about the benefits of EU membership. Opinion polls have shown that, since the start of the euro crisis, a majority want to leave. If it came to it, though, it may be that people would be fearful of the consequences of being shut out of the single market.

The important thing is that people think Cameron stands up for the UK in European negotiations; they are not sure about Ed Miliband. The Labour leader gave a brave speech to the CBI last week, in which he made the case for continued membership of the EU. It was a good speech, in that it engaged with the arguments with some clarity and force. But it was also a "brave" speech in the Yes, Minister sense. Miliband should be as alarmed about my using the word as Jim Hacker was about Sir Humphrey doing so.

Miliband may have been over-correcting for Labour's opportunism in voting with Tory Eurosceptics on the EU budget last month, but his speech reinforced Labour's reputation as the pro-EU party. That is not necessarily a comfortable position for the opposition to be in.

When it comes to the moment of choice on Europe, the Conservative Party should be on to a winner. No doubt it will contrive to throw that advantage away.

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