John Rentoul: Cameron has a feel for the big things

His government may be flaky on detail, but the Prime Minister has the people behind him on welfare reform and Europe

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Once more unto the – yes, well, you get the idea. That quotation has now been retired, but David Cameron, the young English king, prepares to do battle again. Brussels, where he arrives tomorrow, is not far from Agincourt, across the border in Nord-Pas-de-Calais.

He prepared his heroic speech in Davos on Thursday – "We meet today at a perilous moment for economies right across Europe". We do not know whether he, or his speech writer, realised that he was echoing the prologue of Henry V, which speaks of "the perilous narrow ocean" that separates England from the rest of Europe.

The analogy does not quite work. But it is fun. Cameron, massively outnumbered, returned home from the battlefield as "this star of England" last month because he had defied a threat from across the perilous narrow ocean. The battle was messy, the nature of the threat was unclear, but the legend of glorious triumph quickly took hold. The professional cynics pointed out that it was not really a "veto" because it failed to stop fiscal union going ahead among the other 26 members of the EU. The professional diplomats said that if they had negotiated it, they would have secured a better deal for Britain. Jonathan Powell, former diplomat and Tony Blair's chief of staff, told me it was "the worst foreign policy disaster in my adult lifetime".

None of that mattered, because the Prime Minister had done something everyone could understand. Instead of putting up with stuff that we don't really like for the sake of being "in the room" for the next round of talks about stuff that we don't really like, he just said no. Conservative MPs banged their desks, and the opinion polls, which had not moved for 12 months, responded with a sustained four-point rise in the Tory score. Tomorrow, he returns to the scene of his victory to find himself doubly vindicated.

First, there will be a general strike in Belgium, which makes you wonder what the Flemish is for Schadenfreude. For 20 months, the country managed without a government; as soon as one was sworn in, it's everyone out. That shows a serious commitment to anarchism.

Then there is the scratchiness among the 26 who are supposedly united against us. Keeping the Czechs, Hungarians, Swedes, Irish and Danes in the fiscal union has proved tortuous during the four drafts of the agreement, which is no longer called a treaty. Not calling it a treaty is designed to avoid a referendum in Ireland, but is a mere play on words, which will be rejected by the Irish supreme court when it is taken before it.

The scratchiness extends to Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, who last week blamed Cameron for the failure so far to reach agreement on the treaty-that-isn't-a-treaty. Talk about giving Cameron a cake and letting him eat it. What could be better for the British Prime Minister than to be attacked by the Germans for making their life difficult in negotiations from which he is supposed to have excluded himself? It just shows that the British are continuing to defend their interests in the talks among the 26 – we have insisted that any new treaty-that-isn't-a-treaty cannot affect the single market – while ensuring that we are not bound by whatever euro-fudge emerges from the Willy Wonka factory.

No doubt Cameron could have done more to ingratiate himself with our European partners. But that is the headstrong young king for you.

Ian Mortimer, in his book, 1415: Henry V's Year of Glory, recounts the exasperation of the Italian papal notary at the church's Council of Constance, who described English demands to vote separately from the German bishops as "some difficulties raised by the English nation". It was, says Mortimer, one of the first times in ecclesiastical politics that England was described as a nation. Raising difficulties in European councils is what we have done for six centuries.

There is some puzzlement in the Labour Party that English nationalism is still strong. After all, they hung anti-Europeanism around the Tories' necks for nearly two decades and the halter helped Labour win election after election. But that is the difference between being in opposition and in government. In opposition, "going on about Europe" made the Tories seem obsessive, even if voters agreed with them. In government, saying no to Europe is a winner.

I don't know if Cameron had thought this through. He does not seem good at that old chess analogy of seeing several moves ahead. But there are a few things on which he has good instincts, and that is more important. He was not expecting to be in a minority of one at the last Brussels summit, but he wasn't afraid of it when it happened.

Just as in recent weeks Iain Duncan Smith's unworkable welfare reforms have been mangled in the House of Lords, and yet Cameron and George Osborne, his chief strategist, were delighted to lose the vote last week on the £26,000-a-year cap on total benefits. Ed Miliband, who can sometimes see a move or two ahead, asked his peers not to vote with the bishops (ecclesiastical politics still, 597 years after the Council of Constance), but they told him that they were answerable to a higher power.

So not only was Labour on the wrong side of the vote, but its leader looked weak. The £26,000 cap is arbitrary and a bit unfair around the edges, but it is unanswerable. And it is very, very popular. Thus the Conservatives continue to match the sole opposition party in the polls during what might have been the mid-term blues. And anyway, the Lords defeat will be reversed in the Commons.

I am not saying that Cameron is Prince Hal. Most of the time his government is a semi-house-trained shambles. But he has a feel for the big things. Where he is disorganised and doesn't have a symbolic policy he comes unstuck, as with the NHS, which is why Andrew Lansley may not be long in his post. But on two big questions, Europe and welfare reform, he has put himself in a winning position.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul

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