EU treaty: Lib Dem position changes

An interesting piece in the Telegraph which I have included below together with a link. There is something about the Lib Dem party that makes it ok for everyone to pull in different directions. Cute and child like when in opposition but a disaster if let anywhere near the levers of power.

David Cameron flew to the EU summit in Brussels on Thursday afternoon with Nick Clegg’s warm endorsement of his European policy ringing in his ears.

Earlier that day, the Deputy Prime Minister had insisted he was working “in lockstep, hand in glove” with Mr Cameron on European issues.

Hours earlier, Mr Cameron had insisted he “would not hesitate” to veto a treaty among the 27 EU members that did not offer new legal safeguards for the City of London.

Speaking on Thursday afternoon, Mr Clegg said that Britain “must do everything we can to avoid a great big split in the EU.”

But he went on to back the Prime Minister’s approach to the summit, which had been agreed with the Liberal Democrats earlier in the week.He said: “As we are supportive to the eurozone so they can sort their problems out, in return they introduce safeguards to ensure … that the single market is not fragmented and that important industries like the financial services industry are treated fairly. Not exceptional treatment, but are just simply treated fairly, on a level playing field within Europe.

After making that statement, Mr Clegg travelled to his Sheffield constituency. In Brussels, Mr Cameron, his aides and officials were digging in for an all-night session of talks. In Sheffield, Mr Clegg went to bed.

By 4am GMT on Friday, it became clear in Brussels that Mr Cameron’s demands had been rejected by other EU leaders. After talks were suspended – but not ended – Nicolas Sarkozy gave a press conference saying Mr Cameron’s requests were unacceptable.

As he spoke, Mr Cameron called colleagues including Mr Clegg to talk about the summit. According to Mr Clegg’s aides, he was asleep and was woken by the call.

Yesterday, Mr Clegg was asked about the call. He said: “My immediate reaction was I said this was bad for Britain and you know I made it clear to the Prime Minister of course that it was untenable for me to welcome it.”

After 5am GMT on Friday, Mr Cameron gave a press conference saying he had effectively wielded Britain’s veto on a treaty of 27.

Around four hours later, Mr Clegg’s aides told journalists that they were “disappointed” by the outcome in Brussels, but accepted the Prime Minister’s decision to reject participation in the proposed treaty.

Midmorning, Mr Clegg issued a statement. He “regretted” the outcome, but said the UK demands on financial services had been “reasonable”.

He said: “I regret that last night it proved to be impossible to find a way forward as a group of 27 on European treaty change.”

Significantly, he added: “The demands Britain made for safeguards, on which the coalition Government was united, were modest and reasonable.”

But as Friday unfolded, it became clear that the Coalition parties were anything but “united”. Lib Dem MPs and MEPs lined up to denounce the Prime Minister in dramatic terms; one accused Mr Cameron of “betraying” his country.

Perhaps most significantly, Lord Oakeshott, a senior Lib Dem peer said the deal was “a black day for Britain and Europe. We are now in the waiting room while critical decisions are being taken.”
Lord Oakeshott is a close friend of Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and often seen as his unofficial political spokesman.

At a Cabinet meeting last Monday in Ipswich, Mr Cable had questioned Mr Cameron’s European stance, arguing that too much was being done to protect the “special interest” of the City.
He was subsequently overruled by Mr Clegg, who said the Lib Dems would back the Prime Minister.

The hint of Mr Cable’s anger on Friday was the first clue that Mr Clegg was now under intense pressure from his party.

The Lib Dem angst was fuelled by a succession of eurosceptic Tory MPs publicly exulting about the summit. For many Tories, after months of swallowing Lib Dem-inspired Coalition policies, the veto was sweet revenge on their unloved Coalition partners.

And at the summit itself – which continued until 3pm on Friday – it became clear that far from splitting into 17 euro members and 10 non-participants, the numbers looked more like 26 vs 1.
At 3pm on Friday, Mr Cameron briefed journalists in Brussels about the summit and the Coalition.
“This was a coalition position,” he said. “I worked very closely with Nick Clegg in the run-up to this. It was an agreed position, it was a very reasonable position.”

Less than two hours later, Mr Clegg, still in Sheffield, spoke again, shifting his position on the summit.

He continued to insist that Britain’s demands had been “reasonable” but he gave a new warning about the effect of the veto.

He said: “I think any eurosceptic who might be rubbing their hands in glee about the outcome of the summit last night should be careful for what they wish for, because clearly there is potentially an increased risk of a two-speed Europe in which Britain’s position becomes more marginalised, and in the long-run that would be bad for growth and jobs in this country.”

During Saturday, Mr Clegg said nothing publicly, but his aides and colleagues were hard at work. The Lib Dem leader also held a series of conference calls with ministers and senior MPs to test the mood.

During the day, it emerged Mr Cable had given an interview to the Sunday Times, where he made clear he was not happy with the Brussels deal struck by Mr Cameron.

That intervention was guaranteed to be front-page news the next day. It also raised a vital question for Mr Clegg: would he stick to his line of lukewarm, conditional support for the deal and allow Mr Cable to express the anger of his party? Or would he too express that anger?

Mr Clegg may be the Lib Dem leader but he has only shallow roots in the party. Mr Cable, by contrast, is loved by Lib Dem activists, some of whom regard him as a more authentic voice of left-leaning “social Liberalism”.

Allowing Mr Cable to lead the Lib Dem charge against the Brussels deal would have further weakened Mr Clegg’s position in his own party.

Worse would be another public attack on the deal by Tim Farron, the Lib Dem president seen as future leadership contender from the party’s Left. On Saturday, he told Sunday newspapers the Brussels deal was a disaster.

Having been confronted with the scale of his colleagues’ anger, and their willingness to go public with that anger, Mr Clegg determined that he had to change his tone from the considered statement he had issued on Friday morning.

That change had two stages. First, his aides briefed the Sunday newspapers that, actually, the summit outcome had inspired in Mr Clegg a fury he had not hitherto expressed
“Nick certainly doesn’t think this is a good deal for Britain, for British jobs or British growth,” one Lib Dem “source” told the Independent on Sunday.

According to the source, Mr Clegg “couldn’t believe it” when, on Friday morning, he was informed of the course of events and how Mr Cameron had sought to negotiate with fellow EU leaders.

Quite how that briefing can be reconciled with Mr Clegg’s assurance on Friday that the “coalition Government was united” on Mr Cameron’s “reasonable” demands remains an open question.

The second stage of Mr Clegg’s shift came at around 9.30am yesterday morning when he appeared on the Andrew Marr programme on BBC One and denounced the Brussels deal as bad for Britain.

If the intention was to communicate Mr Clegg’s new message, the interview was a spectacular success. The interview led news bulletins all day, almost every front page on Monday morning.

But did Mr Clegg go too far?

Some observers suspect that believing himself to have been too cautious on Friday,

Mr Clegg then acted too recklessly on Sunday. His repeated attacks on the deal and the lurid language he employed (Britain risks becoming “a pygmy in the world”) raised real questions about how he could work with Mr Cameron in the future.

Was the Coalition itself now wobbling?

The suspicion that Mr Clegg had overplayed his hand was fuelled by an appearance on BBC Radio Four on Monday morning by Danny Alexander, the Lib Dem Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

Mr Alexander is as pro-European as any Lib Dem, having once worked for the Britain in Europe campaign group. He is also as trusted by Mr Clegg as any Lib Dem minister. He speaks with his leader’s authority.

So it was significant that he took a much more emollient tone on the Prime Minister and his deal.
Mr Cameron “had a very difficult hand to play,” Mr Alexander said, sympathising with the Prime Minister for both “real intransigence from France and Germany” and the “clear need” to bring something back to the House of Commons for Tory backbenchers.

And answering the questions his leader’s shifting position had raised, Mr Alexander insisted: “This doesn’t threaten the Coalition.”

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