John Rentoul: The real story is Ireland, not Brighton

This Friday's vote on the Lisbon Treaty is important enough to prick the party conference bubble

Share
Related Topics

Party conferences are all very well, but they are not always closely related to life on this planet. That doesn't usually matter, because life in the political bubble is interesting enough. It has characters, mad, bad, dangerous and lovable; it has fights, feuds and reconciliations; and endless speculation about who is up or down. In Labour's case, though, we will be treated to a particularly otherworldly experience this week, in that the one bubble-world question is hardly going to be discussed – namely whether Gordon Brown will still be Prime Minister at the election. Journalists will still use the conference as an excuse to interview each other about it. That will only add another layer of unreality to the proceedings. Not since the Conservative conference of 2003, in which Iain Duncan Smith's speech was interrupted by 17 standing ovations, will a party put on such a strenuous show of unity in defiance of the bubble's own obsessions.

Let us skip over the bubble, therefore, to Friday, when a real political event occurs that does have implications for life on this planet – or at least this European corner of it. At the end of this week the Irish will vote in a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, with opinion polls suggesting that, this time, they will vote yes.

It could, of course, be argued that European politics is even more detached from Earth-bound matters than the Westminster bubble, and there is some truth in that. The detail of the Lisbon Treaty is technical and confusing. This supposed "tidying-up exercise", as Jack Straw once called it, has spawned a bureaucratic Hydra of heads: a president of the council, a president of the commission and a foreign and security high representative thing. None of the changes in the treaty will make any difference to the shape of our bananas or which side of the road we drive on.

And yet there is a larger and simpler truth, which is that Britain's place in Europe is a basic alignment of our politics. It does make a real-world difference whether the British Government is working with the grain of the rest of Europe or against it. Which is why the response of British leaders to the Irish vote is so important. In my interview with David Miliband today, the Foreign Secretary is scathing about David Cameron's refusal to spell out his response to a yes vote. So far, the Conservative leader has clung to an ambiguous form of words: that, if the Lisbon Treaty is ratified, he "would not let the matter rest there". On Friday, that slogan is likely to become unsustainable. At that point, Cameron faces a series of choices. What to say, and when to say it? To anyone observing from the outside, both are no-brainers. He has to say that a Conservative government would accept the Lisbon Treaty now that it is likely to be ratified before the election. And he should say it within minutes of the result of the Irish vote becoming known. Waiting until his conference speech the following Thursday is the sort of thing that Gordon Brown would try to do.

Yet it looks as if Cameron will not say what he ought to say, in which case when he says it becomes irrelevant. I understand that the Conservative leadership is still hoping that, even if the Irish say yes, the treaty will be delayed by a legal challenge in the Czech courts. Vaclav Klaus, the Czech President, has not put his blob of sealing wax on the parchment yet, even though it has been approved by his parliament. Klaus is a Eurosceptic, whose party is a member of the Tories' new group in the European Parliament. But there is an air of wishful thinking about all this. British Eurosceptics have wound each other up for months about how the Lisbon Treaty could be derailed, seizing with an alarming lack of proportion on rogue polls in Ireland and a ruling by the German constitutional court that was reversed, as expected, last week. My knowledge of the Czech legal system consists of a novel by Franz Kafka, but Foreign Office officials who are paid to know about such things say that the challenge is "not a problem".

Miliband is not wrong to say that "it looks like the Tebbits, etc" won't let Cameron say, "Of course we've got to live with Lisbon." The transformation of the parliamentary Conservative Party into an almost exclusively Eurosceptic body is one of the longest-lasting and most poisonous legacies of Margaret Thatcher. Cameron himself is a gut sceptic, though he has the political wit to include the pro-European Kenneth Clarke in his Shadow Cabinet. But does he have the political courage to tell the rest of his party what it is so unwilling to hear?

Not yet. Hence the discussion, as we report today, about other referendums that a Conservative government could hold. Cameron as prime minister could not hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty once it has been ratified, as the Europhobes want: to repudiate the treaty after it has come into effect would be to leave the EU. Hence the compromise plan for a popular vote on other issues that might come up in future negotiations. It is not going to satisfy the hardliners.

Cameron's cowardice on Europe is part of a pattern. Painting with the broad brush of feel-good rhetoric, he is a moderniser, replacing the image of the Tories as right-wing zealots. But on specifics he is often cautious and conciliatory of his own base. There are two things he could do that would make it easier for soft-core Blairites to complete the transition from New Labour to liberal Conservative. One would be to accept the Lisbon Treaty; the other would be to ditch the promise of an inheritance tax cut for estates of up to £1m, as Kenneth Clarke tried to do earlier this year. He succeeded only in pushing it back towards the end of a first parliament.

As he prepares his conference speech, Cameron has been rereading the speeches delivered by Thatcher in 1978 and Tony Blair in 1996 before they came to power. Thatcher's in particular has struck him for its lack of policy and strength of values. But policy matters in the real world, and on Friday he faces a critical test.

John Rentoul's blog is at independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there