Historically, it was French leaders’ intentions over Europe that the British got wrong. For decades, successive British prime ministers miscalculated that the French could be persuaded by logic and the attractiveness of Britain as a key partner to allow us into the European Union, or Common Market as it then was. Time after time, they were roundly disabused by use of the veto and a straight non.
Nowadays, more than 40 years into our membership of the EU, we no longer harbour many illusions about the French; it is the Germans whom we misunderstand so wilfully and woefully. Plainly, David Cameron wanted to lay it on thick with Chancellor Merkel, and so she got the full star treatment – the address to both Houses of Parliament, an audience with the Queen and flattery applied with a trowel. Even the famously unpretentious Angela Merkel seems to have been touched by the attention. Nonetheless, she didn’t throw the Prime Minister so much as a bone. No, no, no, she seemed to be saying, in an echo of another powerful lady politician. No, she would not back his plans for renegotiating Britain’s EU membership. No, she would not appease his troublesome backbenchers, and nein, she would not put British interests ahead of Germany’s.
All of this leaves Mr Cameron in roughly the same place he started: unable to control his MPs, prey to the deadly charge that he leads a divided party and is in charge of a country that is irrelevant so far as Europe is concerned.
This is not an impressive-looking record to present to the voters in just over a year’s time. The paradox here is that although in the polls the public routinely expresses contempt bordering on loathing for Brussels and all its works, and may well reward the UK Independence Party with first place in the European elections this summer, this never seems to make much difference in general elections. In so far as it does next time, it will be Ukip rather than the Conservatives who feel the benefit – for the simple reason that David Cameron will never be able to outflank Nigel Farage on the Eurosceptic wing of British politics.
It is painful to watch yet another British Conservative leader be tortured over Europe. Once upon a time, Mr Cameron gave his own party the sound advice that the best way to deal with Europe was simply to stop going on about it. He was right. In the Thatcher-Major era, the more his party argued about Europe, the more the (Eurosceptically inclined) British voters turned to a Labour Party that was actually entertaining the idea of joining the euro. The more united and Eurosceptic party run by William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard – three leaders who pledged to “save the pound” and repatriate powers across the Channel – failed miserably to make progress against Tony Blair, who carried on smiling and signing treaties the Tories hated. Mr Blair also forged alliances with others, at that time in Italy, Spain and Poland, who shared his agenda. He at least tried to make the EU work for the UK. Mr Cameron doesn’t seem to know how to. Ms Merkel signally failed to turn the tide of Tory history; it was foolish to suppose she could – or would even wish to.