As Britain grappled over the weekend to come to terms with what had happened in Brussels in the early hours of Friday morning, right-wing blogs sought to turn the spotlight onto Ed Miliband, asking pointedly whether he would have signed up to the deal that Cameron walked away from. Would he, they ask, have given in to Nicholas Sarkozy and sold the City of London down the river?
Good question though it is, it is nonetheless the wrong one. For Cameron’s failure was not at the negotiating table at 4am. It was not sleep deprivation that did him in but a train of events already passed that meant that, by the time he walked into the dinner that ended up lasting ten hours, the deal on the table was already one that Cameron would be unable to support. And his demands – whatever they were – would always be rejected.
Depending on who you believe, Cameron was either asking for changes so fundamental as to be an act of bad faith or so small as to amount to nothing more than a fig leaf. But big or small, his actual demands had become irrelevant by the time of asking – because they had stopped being about Britain’s position in Europe and become about Cameron’s position at the head of a Tory party that has once again become impaled on the rusty nail of Europe.
When 81 Tory backbenchers voted against the Government line on an EU referendum last month (and a further 15 abstained, leaving the Prime Minister with fewer than half his backbenchers on his side) the biggest surprise was not the scale of the rebellion, but that a younger, sharper Parliamentary Tory party had so swiftly become as obsessed about Europe as the yesterday’s men of the Major years.
Yet Cameron has himself to thank for that, in part at least. If pushing through the wholesale redrawing of constituency boundaries is likely to be to the significant electoral benefit of his party in the long run, the resulting destabilisation that is every one of his MPs needing to seek reselection from their Associations is a short-term problem he appears not to have foreseen. With many facing competitive selections with other sitting Tory MPs, the need to please the Euro-sceptic activist base has seemingly become more important, for now at least, than pleasing the whips.
Which made Thursday’s summit fraught with danger for Cameron. Signing up to a treaty without a substantial win for Britain would leave him in hot water with his backbenchers – as they one after another jumped up to make clear at PMQs last week – and unable to face down demands for a referendum.
And there was his problem, because he couldn’t deliver a win for Britain. Although a summit to save the Euro was unlikely to pay much heed to a country that had stayed out of the currency that need not have been a deal-breaker. A roomful of politicians understands the need of another politician to take home some wins, and they had always served these up for former British Prime Ministers, including John Major.
Where Cameron differed was that this time they owed him no favours. Not only had he withdrawn his MEPs from the mainstream centre-right group in the European Parliament, the EPP, as a result of a promise during his leadership election but he’d also failed to cultivate the personal relationships that make Brussels tick. Pulling out of the German-led EPP had got relations with Merkel off to a bad start, but more importantly it excluded Cameron from a key EPP dinner in Marseille on Wednesday night where much of the next day’s deal was stitched up.
Likewise, whereas Tony Blair knew that the shame of those holiday pictures with Berlusconi was nothing compared to the benefits of having allies in the room in Brussels, Cameron seems to have made no effort to make nice with the right-wing elite of Europe. According to the weekend’s papers, Cameron was reduced to sending Nick Clegg on a secret visit to Madrid to plead with friends in the newly elected liberal government there.
As a result, the Prime Minister found himself faced with Conservative MPs wanting a showdown and no prospect of a face-saver from a hostile room in Brussels, and he made his choice. As Charles Moore says in the Telegraph: "Dreadfully late in the day – as is so often the case with Mr Cameron and his ‘government by essay crisis’ – everything became clear to his cool mind. He could stave off a referendum, hold together his Coalition, win over his party and prevent further encroachments on British commercial freedom by the use of that one little, previously unsayable word, ‘No’."
In short, having set himself up for a fall long before he walked into dinner in Brussels, the Prime Minister had no choice but to choose his short-term political survival over maintaining a place at the European table. Those technocratic Mediterranean governments might just not be such a bad thing after all.