John Kampfner: Silent Liberal Democrats are left on the sidelines

Comment

Share
Related Topics

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”

twitter@johnkampfner

www.jkampfner.net

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

£37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

£25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

£16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Labour's Jeremy Corbyn arrives to take part in a Labour party leadership final debate, at the Sage in Gateshead, England, Thursday, Sept. 3  

Jeremy Corbyn is here to stay and the Labour Party is never going to look the same again

Andrew Grice
Serena Williams  

As Stella Creasy and Serena Williams know, a woman's achievements are still judged on appearance

Holly Baxter
The long walk west: they fled war in Syria, only to get held up in Hungary – now hundreds of refugees have set off on foot for Austria

They fled war in Syria...

...only to get stuck and sidetracked in Hungary
From The Prisoner to Mad Men, elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series

Title sequences: From The Prisoner to Mad Men

Elaborate title sequences are one of the keys to a great TV series. But why does the art form have such a chequered history?
Giorgio Armani Beauty's fabric-inspired foundations: Get back to basics this autumn

Giorgio Armani Beauty's foundations

Sumptuous fabrics meet luscious cosmetics for this elegant look
From stowaways to Operation Stack: Life in a transcontinental lorry cab

Life from the inside of a trucker's cab

From stowaways to Operation Stack, it's a challenging time to be a trucker heading to and from the Continent
Kelis interview: The songwriter and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell and crying over potatoes

Kelis interview

The singer and sauce-maker on cooking for Pharrell
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea