John Rentoul: A bumper week for Eurowaffle

While observing diplomatic protocol with Angela Merkel, David Cameron distanced himself from much of his party

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When David met Angela – he was forced to make the case for Britain's "engagement" with Europe, which most of his party has forgotten. David Cameron started his news conference with the German Chancellor on Friday by skirting the boundaries of good taste to no obvious comic advantage, as a way of not answering a question about whether the eurozone had enough firepower to see it through the currency crisis: "My German isn't that good: I think a bazooka is a Superwaffe, am I right?"

Angela Merkel laughed as if she were a bit part in Fawlty Towers, but just as striking was Cameron's pro-European waffle, designed to distract from their failure to agree anything. "Britain is in Europe because we are an engaged trading nation," he said. "This is the biggest single market in the world, and it is in part a British creation. We are proud of that creation and we want it to be positive and active. We think there is huge potential still for the completion of the single market."

I am not at all sure that many Tory MPs would agree with that any more. They do not think of Britain as having had any influence on the current shape of the European Union – although they might accept that Britain helped to argue for it to expand to its present size. They certainly don't take any pride in it. Very few of them say that Britain should pull out of the EU, and most of them talk about the benefits of the single market and the importance of shaping its rules. But there is a lack of conviction about them. It is only because Cameron is Prime Minister and required to play the part of a Blair-like enthusiast that he can make it sound as if he cares about selling downloads, or whatever it is that we sell these days, to a market of 500 million people.

Talk to Conservative backbenchers and their attitude towards Europe is unremittingly hostile. The idea of taking pride in being an "engaged trading nation", which is "positive and active" in completing the biggest single market, is simply absent from their thoughts. Their only interest in Europe is in taking powers back from Brussels. This is one of those aspirations that exists in the general but not in the specific. Ask which powers and they may mumble about the common fisheries policy, especially if their constituency is near the sea, but David Davis, who remains one of the most interesting Tories outside the Government, exposed the vacuum at the heart of parliamentary Euroscepticism with a brilliant article in The Daily Telegraph last week.

With the same satirical genius with which he made such fun of the Shami Chakrabarti "Did Magna Carta die in vain?" alliance with CCTV-hating libertarians by standing down to cause a by-election, he mocked the incoherence of the Tory Eurosceptic mainstream.

"The solution is to secure for Britain a permanent, universal opt-out that allows us to escape the damaging effects of costly and unnecessary EU laws," he concluded. Tellingly, he held up two non-EU countries, which have fairly free access to the single market, as exemplars: "Norway and Switzerland – with their more flexible trading relationships – do not subordinate their democracies to the EU. Neither should we."

It was not satire, of course, but a vivid marker of where the weight of Tory opinion is going. It had an unfortunate effect, though, in that one of Davis's demands was: "To have human rights cases decided in London, not Luxembourg." Human rights, as any fule kno, come under not the EU but the European Court of Human Rights, which sits in Strasbourg. Yet the revolt against human rights law is now bound up in a form of British Euroscepticism that is edging towards what would have seemed just three years ago an extreme – even extremist – scenario, of withdrawing from the EU and repudiating the European Court of Human Rights.

Davis does not go so far, yet, but he plainly thinks that the mood of the Tory back benches is going that way. You can tell that the call of ambition still squeaks in his breast, because he had a deft soundbite to define the present crisis, which seems to be splitting us into a two-speed Europe: "Being in the outside lane is, after all, where you do the overtaking."

That, of course, is a snare, if not actually a delusion. The idea that, by excluding Britain from the EU core – as a matter of strategy rather than necessity – we give ourselves an advantage is not one that the Germans or French would tolerate. It is, however, typical of the confusion of the Tory party that it hates most things about the EU but wants to stay in it.

That is why it came as something of a surprise to hear Cameron sounding so positive by Merkel's side. Needless to say, he has to sound like that. It is one of the requirements of diplomacy. Beyond that, though, Cameron seems to be merely a polite observer of other people's crisis.

Another of his predecessors sees it surprisingly clearly. John Major's view, when he spoke last week to David Frost, was coloured by what seemed, for once, a justifiable grey pessimism. He saw only two possibilities. Either the whole of the EU becomes more efficient over the next 10 years. Or – and he implied this was more likely – "the eurozone becomes closer and closer together, more and more dominant; some of the 10 nations that are not in the eurozone join it in the next decade; leaving the United Kingdom, who will not join it, and one or two others outside, and then you have a diminished, semi-detached United Kingdom looking at the European Union. And, since 50 per cent of our trade goes there, that is actually not in the interest – I know some people would welcome that – but that is not in the interest of UK business, UK well-being and UK livelihoods."

It has come to something if John Major thinks that David Cameron's European policy is doomed.

John Rentoul was named Political Tweeter of the Year at the Public Affairs News awards last week. Follow him at: twitter.com/JohnRentoul

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