Lord Owen: High-handed approach that has exposed the Coalition's faultline

Cameron's position toughened and he ruthlessly pushed Clegg into a blind alley

Share
Related Topics

The position put forward by David Cameron in Brussels was quite simply non-negotiable. If Cameron didn't know this, it was due to inattention, for he is not stupid.

By far the most likely explanation for his public volte-face is political. On Monday and Tuesday of last week, he appeared to be a negotiator and yet by Wednesday and Thursday he had developed an ultimatum mood. To anyone listening to his change of tone, it was clear he was faced by a group of 80 to 100 Conservative MPs who would not live with an EU treaty including legislation for the eurozone different to that which already exists.

Far from being bold and decisive, Cameron appeased that element in his party that has long wanted Britain not only to exclude itself from the eurozone but who want to leave the EU altogether.

In doing so, Cameron broke from a negotiating process of constructive engagement and thus rejected the collective wisdom of his predecessors. In 1978 Jim Callaghan decided to join the European Monetary System but not to join the Exchange Rate Mechanism. In 1990 John Major decided to be party to the European Monetary Union but not to join the eurozone. These were decisions taken on grounds of practical prudence. Experience of the EU had shown many people that the empty chair was not the way to win the argument.

The strange development was that Nick Clegg apparently accepted the non-negotiable document but presumably had no inkling of how these demands would be presented. Cameron, having got Clegg on board, appears to have thought that was sufficient. And Clegg gave the message of support all through Friday and most of Saturday. By yesterday, when Clegg became a dissenter, Cameron had no reason to fear the Coalition would break up. As over the Alternative Vote, Cameron's position toughened as the moment for decision came, and he once again ruthlessly pushed Clegg into a blind alley.

But this will prove to be a serious miscalculation by Cameron. For he has revealed the faultline in the Coalition. It may take some months before that becomes a chasm, but his high-handed approach makes it very likely that before the end of 2012, we will see in the Commons a no-confidence motion tabled by the Opposition, which will win the support of some Liberal Democrats.

Under the rules of the fixed-term Parliaments which the Coalition passed, there have to be two votes of no confidence, which must be won within a fortnight, for the Coalition to fall and the Government to be automatically replaced. Maybe such an outcome will not materialise in 2012, but it surely will by 2013, when a combination of low economic growth and massive unpopularity will bring about the the Coalition's collapse.

The Conservatives don't seem to understand that the Prime Minister no longer has the right to ask the Queen for a general election. An election can only take place before 2015 if Conservative and Labour MPs vote for a dissolution, since the Coalition and smaller parties cannot make up the required percentage.

In their defence, Conservatives say the PM was safeguarding the City. Would that he were. But the City depends on business from the EU member states, and pretending that we can ignore their input into the regulation of the City is obsessive and blind.

For Cameron to try to reintroduce the argument for unanimous voting and the abandonment of qualified majority voting – which even Margaret Thatcher accepted – in areas of British interest was always going to be a major issue. Yet, it would have been possible to negotiate if the ground had been well-prepared diplomatically, and in a mood of constructive negotiation. It was never going to be agreed after a breakdown in relationships, not just with President Sarkozy, but, far more importantly, with Chancellor Merkel.

If any City punters rejoiced on Friday, thinking they can be safeguarded by a Britain that relishes being on its own, they will soon feel it in their own pockets.

 

Lord Owen was leader of the Social Democratic Party from 1983-1990

React Now

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

Recruitment Genius: Production Administrator

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sunroom / Conservatory / Extension Designers

£16000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Planning Assistant

£16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working for one of the count...

Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger Administrator

£5120 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working for one of the countr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

'You’re just jealous', and other common misconceptions about the Protein World advert

Hannah Atkinson
David Cameron has said he is not going to “roll over” and let Labour leader Ed Miliband and the SNP’s Alex Salmond wreck the achievements of the last five years  

After five years of completely flaccid leadership, I'm glad something 'pumps up' David Cameron

Joe Sandler Clarke
Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence