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John Kampfner: Silent Liberal Democrats are left on the sidelines


One of the great fears among Liberal Democrat MPs is that their best pitch at the next general election would be: we made the Tories a little less nasty. Now they will struggle to claim even that small prize, as the UK drifts into miserable isolation.

The Europhobes hold sway in every corner of the Conservative party. They have one simple goal – withdrawal from the EU. They don’t hide their aims, indeed are proud of them. They cling to a romantic notion of the bulldog island trading with the Chinese and fighting the good fight with the Americans. They refuse to see that the more Britain goes it alone inside Europe, the less its voice is heard outside Europe.

That is not the government that was voted in. The coalition was designed to steer a careful path between the Conservative right wing, the so-called pragmatists under David Cameron and the Liberal Democrats. For sure, it was never going to be easy. Step forward Nick Clegg, former MEP, polyglot and avowed pro-European.

Coalition, by its nature, is about compromise. It is also, as Clegg learnt after being double crossed by Cameron during the referendum on electoral reform, about differentiation. There was no area where the difference was more obvious than on Europe, even if the Lib Dems had somewhat watered down their previous enthusiasm.

What matters most of all is not where you start from, but where you end up. In the course of yesterday (fri), Britain’s isolation, and increasing irrelevance, in Europe became ever more discernible as the other previously peripheral countries such as Hungary fell into line with the Germans and French.

The failure of the British position was not that we disagreed with the approach of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy. We were entirely within our rights to take different positions on specific proposals. Instead what we did was a mixture of petulance and under-preparation.

Throughout the currency crisis, the default position of British ministers was to be haughty and rude – a combination of ‘not my problem’ and public schoolboy-style insults about foreigners. Leaving aside considerations such as manners, this was not designed to increase the effectiveness of the British negotiating position.

As ever, Cameron thought he could glide over the detailed planning. The joint German-French approach had been signalled days before. It was clear that a hand-bagging would be counter-productive. Europeans are used to that and find ways of ignoring us. They are happy to point out that – for all the many mistakes they have made in the creation of the Euro and dealing with the crisis – it is not as if the Brits have much to brag about. Our economy is under-performing compared to a number of northern EU states.

Clegg has made a number of trips to EU capitals over the past 18 months, partly to smooth ruffled feathers. But the extent to which they take notice is commensurate with the extent of his influence back home. His task has always been to show that he can deal effectively with Cameron and the perennially Eurosceptic Treasury.

On this most important of occasions, Clegg was not listened to. Perhaps he did try, but was shouted down; perhaps he was too eager to compromise. The result is the same. He now faces an uphill struggle to convince his party that he can make a difference. He can start by being heavily involved in whatever follow-up work is done to salvage something from the Brussels debacle. After that, Clegg needs to ask himself a difficult question: did he come into politics to be part of perhaps the most diplomatically-inept and Euro-hostile government in modern British history?

John Kampfner is author of “Freedom For Sale”