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John Rentoul

John Rentoul: Any PM would have done as Cameron did

Ignore the Eurosceptic cheers. It may turn out to have been wise to step away from the heat as the euro begins to meltdown

'If we are isolated and we are in the right, then that's the correct position." The Prime Minister was emphatic. Just because he had used Britain's veto, he said, did not mean that he, or the British, were anti-European.

Sorry, I know: one of the oldest columnist tricks. That prime minister was, of course, Tony Blair explaining why he had vetoed the plan for a withholding tax on investments at the EU summit in Helsinki, in December 1999. But it helps to suggest some truths about David Cameron's historic decision on Thursday night.

The most important is that any British prime minister would have made the same decision. Britain's refusal to be part of the "fiscal compact" to save the euro was a refutation of the great-leader theory of history. Cameron did not say no to the fiscal compact because he was "weak" or "appeasing his backbenchers", as Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, alleged. The weak thing to do would have been to agree to treaty wording that offered no certainty on regulation of the City of London. Especially because Nicolas Sarkozy seemed to be, for his domestic purposes, making it hard for the British to agree.

I do not believe that any other prime minister would have done anything differently. Not Ed Miliband, whose response to the summit was a predictable but meaningless "isolated in Europe", "would not have started from here" whinge. Not Gordon Brown, who was flatly opposed to an EU withholding tax in 1999, and who was robust in resisting any possible threats to British competitiveness. And not Blair, who was more enthusiastic about the financial services sector than Cameron and George Osborne, post-Lehman Brothers, can afford to be.

I am not surprised that Blair, who is capable of believing that he could have been president of Europe, thinks otherwise. He believes that, by working his magic with Angela Merkel and Sarkozy, he could have secured a different outcome. Peter Mandelson tells me that Blair would never have ended up being one against 26: "He would have prepared something long beforehand to get from the negotiation and stayed there until he got it." Jonathan Powell, Blair's former chief of staff, says that last week's summit was "a complete disaster – the worst foreign policy disaster in my adult lifetime".

If you start from the view that further British integration in the EU is desirable, I suppose that may be so, but simply believing in Britain's European destiny does not make it happen. This is surely one of those points when large forces collide and mere leaders, even the most persuasive, cannot make things happen by force of will. The only role for the individual in this kind of history is to make a mistake, and I do not accept that Cameron did that.

Nor do I accept, incidentally, the suggestion made by a source close to Ed Miliband that the Prime Minister invented a "phantom menace" to British interests to justify walking away from the fiscal compact because he did not want to face down his own party in Parliament.

Call me naive, but I do not believe that Cameron would make up a pretext to pose as the leader who said no to the pantomime villains of Brussels. The view in No 10 early in the week appeared genuinely to be that an agreement of all 27 countries would be preferred, however difficult that might be to sell at home. And when even a member of the Shadow Cabinet talks about the threat to the City from "Barnier-inspired hostile legislation", referring to Michel Barnier, the French commissioner for the internal market, Cameron's insistence on protecting British interests seems sensible.

Without intending to, then, the Prime Minister has turned the inevitable outcome of the collision of domestic political imperatives in Germany, France and Britain into what looks like a personal triumph. Not being sure about the front-page adulation of the Daily Mail ("The day he put Britain first"), or the teenage fandom of prominent sceptics ("incredibly, incredibly exciting", Douglas Carswell MP), I took the precaution of speaking to one of the less well-known of the 2010 intake, who was among the 81 rebels voting in October for a referendum. This MP predicts that Cameron will receive "rapturous applause" at the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers tomorrow.

"It's great to have a British prime minister in Brussels being strong for Britain rather than a European in Downing Street." This "pro-European sceptic", who does not want to leave the EU, thinks Cameron's triumph will silence the "obsessive" demands for a referendum and unite most of the parliamentary party.

But for how long? The Labour argument is that the Prime Minister has bought short-term popularity with Eurosceptic backbenchers and the press at the expense of Britain's long-term interests. That may be right. There is a danger in isolation, but it seems more likely that, over the next three to 10 years, Cameron will be vindicated. I cannot see the fiscal compact ending happily. I cannot see it starting happily, come to that.

For all the British horror or delight, according to taste, at being one against 26, it won't stay like that. The Swedes have signed up for it subject to parliamentary approval, but the Swedish prime minister did not sound as if he liked it: "Sweden, which isn't a member of the euro, does not want to tie itself to rules completely tailored for the eurozone." We cannot be sure that the Hungarian or Czech parliaments will wave it through, and there is some reference to Finnish parliamentary approval in there too. Downing Street officials do not see how Ireland can avoid having a referendum – its constitution requires one on any treaty.

Even if it is ever signed, the fiscal compact is probably not enough to save the euro for long and, now that we understand that the design of the currency was unworkable all along, it certainly cannot put right its flaws.

The continuing troubles of the euro affect our prosperity. But whether or not Britain is "in the room" of eurozone members, or of fiscal compact signer-uppers, when the sweaty discussions take place over how to dismantle the euro may not make much difference. Cameron will be able to look back and say, with Blair, that we were in the right, and "that's the correct position".

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