Steve Richards: Nick Clegg must now face up to the true nature of his Coalition partner

The Prime Minister is the considerate, constructive wrecker of Britain's relationship with Europe

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We must stop banging on about Europe. That was David Cameron's instruction to his party and message to the wider electorate when he started out as an apparently moderate, modernising leader of the opposition. In the past few days, parts of Cameron's party have been banging on about Europe with renewed gusto as a result of his conduct at last week's summit. The wielding of the veto has revitalised the relationship between a Eurosceptic Prime Minister and his Eurosceptic MPs.

There is much, justified, focus on where Cameron's act of diplomatic vandalism leaves Nick Clegg. There has been less on where this leaves Cameron, beyond an assumption that it strengthens him within his party and with the voters, so much so that were he able to call an election next year, he could win by banging on about Europe.

Such an assumption ignores the earlier attempts to project Cameron in an entirely different light. In the end, electorally successful leaders manage to convey a consistently authentic public voice. They twist, turn, and change their minds, but there are connections with what they used to say in their early days as a leader and what they did later. They remain recognisably the same public figure. In the case of Cameron, the connections are becoming increasingly strained, and not just in relation to Europe.

Admittedly, a close look at most of what he said in opposition would have exposed the limits then of his so-called modernising instincts. His exhortation about Europe was part of a pattern. He told his party to stop banging on about the issue but not to revise its extreme Euroscepticism. Instead of challenging his MPs, Cameron famously left the centre-right parliamentary alliance, the EPP – the root of his current isolation in Europe. Similarly, a close examination of what he was saying about the state, society, even his "hug a hoodie" speech, rooted him firmly on the radical right – "reheated Thatcherism", as one of his senior advisers once described it to me.

But most voters do not pay close attention and notice instead the mood music. Tonally, Cameron sought to portray his leadership as a modernising leap away from Thatcherism and towards the progressive, one-nation centre ground. He proclaimed that his heroes were Macmillan and Disraeli. He was the heir to Blair.

Cameron's period in government, and indeed his reaction to the 2008 economic crisis when he was still in opposition, show that in policy terms he is a child of Thatcher, unable to break free from her outdated spell while knowing he must give the impression that he has. He was trying his best in the Commons yesterday to pull off this agonising contortion once more – the considerate, polite, constructive wrecker of Britain's relationship with Europe.

Above all, the contortion is inauthentic, rather like Gordon Brown pretending to be the father of the nation when he was caught planning an early election in order to destroy his opponents. In theory, Cameron could win an early election on Europe, but his campaign would be tonally so at odds with the last one that voters would be instinctively wary.

Senior Liberal Democrats have conflicting views of Cameron and George Osborne. Clegg and Danny Alexander, his closest ministerial ally, are admirers, regarding the duo as liberal modernisers held back by a section of their party. Alexander, in particular, is evangelical about the Coalition, arguing even against Lib Dems projecting their distinctiveness within the Government. Others are less impressed. One tells me that Cameron/Osborne are the most unprincipled duo he has come across in politics, in the sense that they are interested only in politics as a game and wanting to win. What none of them seems to recognise is the degree to which the duo do have convictions and that they are firmly on the right.

Clegg is a very different politician to Cameron and Osborne, almost innocently non-political, and yet the first Lib Dem leader to take his party into government. Like most politicians, Clegg has gone into politics to make a difference, but unlike them, is quite often slow to recognise the deeper political currents, taking at face value the development of policy and conduct of his colleagues, a sign both of decency and naivety. Last week, he worked hard behind the scenes, the multi-linguist pro-European speaking to key figures in other EU countries while agreeing with Cameron that safeguards were required in relation to the City of London. When Cameron phoned him in the early hours of Friday, Clegg accepted his version of events: Sarkozy refused to give ground. Bloody Sarkozy!

As far as Clegg was concerned, that was largely the story, and at first he conveyed to alarmed colleagues this simplistic version: Cameron did his best. Sarkozy was the wrecker. It was only later, after frantic conversations with Paddy Ashdown and others, and when he saw the joyful delight of Tory Eurosceptic MPs, that Clegg realised his party was horrified and there were grounds for the horror.

The sequence is familiar. Earlier, Clegg saw the logic and fairness in tripling student fees, and worked to make the repayments equitable, which they are. Only later did he become aware that he was doing the politically impossible, reneging on his most vivid election pledge. Now on Europe he looks ahead, arguing that the key is to ensure that Britain is not isolated. How he will achieve co-operation with the Eurosceptics hailing Cameron's current position is by no means clear unless the eurozone implodes, in which case everyone starts all over again.

Even then they start all over again with a British Prime Minister who has become partly defined by his actions last week, actions that were more than a response to a sudden late-night drama. Some of the more pragmatic Tory Eurosceptic MPs close to Cameron were led to believe much earlier last week by No 10 that a UK veto was the most likely outcome. They were not remotely surprised when they heard the news.

On matters ranging from the spending cuts to NHS reforms, the Lib Dems have conflicting views. On Europe, they are united. A coalition cannot be an end in itself even for ardent advocates of pluralist politics. The ends must relate to policy. When does acute discomfort move towards an exit strategy? The answer I get from them all in government is that 2015 is still the date. I suspect that in some form or other it will be earlier. At least it should be.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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