John Rentoul: I don't like it, Dave... it's too quiet

The Prime Minister is at his best in a crisis, but good disasters keep dissolving. Even Europe has been tamed

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The Independent Online

David Cameron faces a serious problem at this week's Conservative conference. He is staring disaster in the face. He is under absolutely no pressure whatsoever, and we know what he does if he is under no pressure. He messes up. He is an "essay crisis" prime minister, best at make-or-break time. If he is not up against it, he lets his ministers reorganise the NHS or sell off forests. It turns into a drama and he has to step in and make it all right again.

When it matters, when he was going for the leadership of his party in 2005, or when he was trying to put Gordon Brown off an early election in 2007, he can give the speech of his life. This week, it really does not matter. He should just read out one of Tony Blair's old speeches and see if anyone notices. I suspect, after last week's observable curvature in the fabric of time in Liverpool, that the Prime Minister will, in fact, quote rather a lot of Blair anyway, just to push the bayonet deeper into Labour's self-inflicted wound, opened up when a few Labour delegates booed at Blair's name and cheered the leader's declaration: "I am not Tony Blair."

Labour now enters a long and agonising period of trying to decide whether replacing its leader with Yvette Cooper would be enough of an improvement to justify the bloodletting, before concluding, like last time, that it can't really be bothered (after all, winning elections is just so much "effort"). Journalists can therefore safely ignore the party until about 2014. Cameron's speech this week is therefore sure to be dreadful.

What Labour's departure for anti-capitalist la-la land does mean, however, is that the large number of Conservatives with a similarly tenuous grasp of electoral reality will attract quite a lot of attention this week, unless ministers can come up with enough baubles – 80mph speed limit anyone? Poop poop! For perhaps the 20th year running, one subject dominates the fringe meetings at Tory party conference: Europe.

The most reliable source of entertainment this week will be the spectacle of former leaders of the party, who made their reputations as Eurosceptics, having to explain why keeping the euro is so essential for those states that have adopted it. I have mentioned William Hague's comparison of the euro to a "burning building with no exits" before, and pointed out that it is tricky to reconcile with government policy, which is that eurozone stability is paramount. So it proved when the Foreign Secretary was interviewed in The Spectator last week. He repeated his analogy proudly, saying, "and so it has proved for some of the countries in it", before he realised that he was saying the Greeks would just have to stay put and get burnt. "You can have burning buildings where they manage to put out the fire or control it or get more room or something," he said, starting to babble. "It's not built with exits so it is physically a difficult thing to leave a currency without any plan to do so. I don't think we can advocate that."

Well, actually, he cannot advocate that because it is not the policy of his government. His policy is that Greece must not go back to the drachma because of the danger of contagion – that is, that the markets would then lose confidence, one by one, in Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy, and might not stop there. But that is precisely what a lot of Conservative MPs think must and should happen. Sajid Javid, MP for Bromsgrove and an economist and former banker, wrote last week that Europe needs to "turn off the bankruptcy machine" and that this will only be done when Greece, as well as possibly Ireland and Portugal, withdraw from the euro. He says reinforcing the eurozone, which the Government supports, is a "cure worse than the disease".

All of which is very important, although there is little that the British government can do about it, other than volunteering to lend money to eurozone institutions out of solidarity. (We did it for Ireland, but, now that a real depression is threatened, we are not prepared to do it for the rest of the eurozone.) The important event last week was the overwhelming vote by the German parliament to bail out the euro, just as we were told that Angela Merkel was losing control of her coalition.

If not the euro, however, most of the Conservative parliamentary party is desperate to have some other big bust-up with Europe, or with the Government about Europe. On Friday, the European Commission provided the perfect chance for the Prime Minister, and Iain Duncan Smith, another Eurosceptic former leader, to have a symbolic dispute with EU bureaucrats. It was reported as the Commission trying to force us to pay state benefits to any EU citizen who ships up at a jobcentre and asks for them. This is a Euro-myth in the straight-banana category. There is a dispute, but it is smaller and more technical. The Commission says it is "discrimination" to apply our "habitual residence test" to people from other member-states but not to British citizens.

However, when I suggested to the Commission spokeswoman that this could be solved easily by applying the test to Britons too, she said that the Commission objected to the test itself, because it was additional to the EU-wide definition of "habitual centre of interests". This looks like one argument that the UK government could win. Matt Cavanagh, an adviser to Labour ministers who tightened the residence test, says that "being tougher on benefits is the price of defending free movement for work", and that other EU countries are moving in our direction.

As I say. It all looks too easy for Cameron. The opposition has vacated the field. The external "threat" has provided a symbolic dragon to slay. And we can look forward to Hague, Duncan Smith and possibly Michael Howard taking to the stage in Manchester to sing the Eurovision version of The Eagles: "You can check out any time you like but you can never leave."

Something must go horribly wrong.



independent.co.uk/jrentoul

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