Political Animal


January 17, 2013 11:30 AM Fish Without Chips, and David Cameron As UK’s John Boehner

By Ed Kilgore

If you get bored with U.S. politics this week, there’s always the impending Israeli election (in addition to a post here on Tuesday about the radicalized Israeli Right, I’d recommend a Noam Sheizaf piece in Foreign Affairs about the decline into fecklessness of the Israeli Left). But closer in time and place is David Cameron’s trip to Amsterdam tomorrow for a Big Speech on Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

At TNR, Alex Massie analyzes Cameron’s quandry over what to say in this speech from the perspectives of both Europe and British domestic politics. On the former topic, Massie points out that for all the angst in other EU countries (especially France) about Britain’s direction, there are countries within and especially on the periphery of the EU that think the UK could usefully create pressure for a more modest community (a sympathetic Finnish prime minister said the EU without the UK would be like “fish without chips”), so long as Cameron doesn’t overplay his hand and blow things up.

But it’s the domestic political pressure on Cameron from within his own Conservative Party that is the most interesting feature of Massie’s account:

To put it in American parlance, there is something of the Tea Party about the Tory eurosceptics—and in his efforts to placate them while retaining some dignity, there is something of John Boehner about poor Mr Cameron, too. His own preferences count for less than he might consider ideal. His party has him on the run and they know it.
A poll of 1,500 Conservative grass-roots activists published this week found that 38 percent of the Tory party’s keenest supporters want to leave the EU entirely while another 40 percent only support membership if Britain’s relationship with Europe is redefined as access to a common market and not much else. A poll published this week reported that one in ten Conservative supporters at the last election have switched their support, for the time being at any rate, to the UK Independence Party—a once fringe group whose principle policy is British withdrawal from the EU. As an indication of the way the political wind is blowing, UKIP has, according to some recent polls, supplanted Cameron’s coalition partners the Liberal Democrats as Britain’s third most popular party. That is, the most eurosceptic party is now more popular than the most europhile grouping.

So Cameron is in something of a box, much like John Boehner is in dealing with Barack Obama with a loud cadre of Tea Party-oriented backbenchers threatening revolt at every turn. But unlike Boehner, whose primary problem is an informal understanding known as the “Hastert Rule” whereby GOP House Speakers are supposed to ensure majority support in their own Caucus before bringing any major legislation to the floor, Cameron must consider the small but quite calamitous risk of Labour and backbench Tory members of the House of Common combining to topple the government (it’s true the only two times that has happened, in 1924 and 1979, minority governments were in power, but there’s a first time for everything). He doesn’t have much maneuvering room.

There are few obvious solutions to Cameron’s dilemma. The longer he equivocates the greater the calls for withdrawal become, but any attempt to make the case for Britain’s active role as a proper member of the European project is liable to be met with derision by much of his own party and most of the conservative press. Moreover, the promise of a referendum makes British withdrawal from the EU more likely than it would have been before the promise was made. The only way for Cameron to come out on top would be to issue a threat he does not want to carry out and have that threat taken sufficiently seriously by his remaining friends in Europe that they will agree, even at some cost to themselves, to allow Cameron to buy off his own party. It is not obvious why the French (or even the more sympathetic Germans) should agree to this.

A prime minister whose economic policies have largely failed, and whose party is trailing Labour in the polls by a healthy margin, doesn’t need to be touching off any Euro-crises. But that could happen tomorrow if Cameron doesn’t walk a very thin ledge above a precipitous height.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Rich on January 17, 2013 11:40 AM:

    he does have a minority government. The coalition includes the feckless Social Dems, whose support of his economic programs probably won't help them in the future.

  • c u n d gulag on January 17, 2013 11:44 AM:

    So, now there's a 2nd violinist, joining Boehner, in the worlds tiniest violin's are playing sad songs for themselves, section.

  • Josef K on January 17, 2013 11:46 AM:

    I find myself suddenly nostalgic for the Thatcher years. She was an unempathic, sociopathic witch who mades the original Grimm fairy tales look tame, but at least the hardcore crazies were kept out Parliament entirely.

  • Samuel Knight on January 17, 2013 12:41 PM:

    Rich is right - Cameron's Tories are running a minority government. They are in power only because the Liberals under Clegg decided to go all in with the austeriy march - and have stuck with it as it lead the country back to recession. For Clegg it's even worse because signing onto the austerity charge basically went back on everything he campaigned on - and surprise from one of the most popular politicians he's become a joke.

    That's the big story in the 3rd parties - how did the Liberals destroy themselves by signing up for this idiot policy?

    And that should be a big lesson here - if you "compromise" and sign up for really dumb policies you will get blamed. People don't care that you were "forced" into it. You wlll get blamed worse because you should have known better.

    So if any democrats says we "must" touch the 3rd rail....

  • John on January 17, 2013 2:14 PM:

    It's a coalition, not a minority government. A minority government would be if the Liberal Dems were tolerating the government but not participating. As it stands, they are in the government, and so the government relies on a majority coalition of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats

  • MBunge on January 17, 2013 3:47 PM:

    I'm pretty sure the Euro-skeptics in England have much better arguments backing them up than the Tea Party types in America.


  • Doug on January 17, 2013 3:57 PM:

    When I was in the UK in the mid-late 80s and again in the early 90s, one of the selling points for the UK to be in the EU was that it would allow the UK to have a greater "punch" in foreign affairs.
    No, I have no idea what that means.
    I'm afraid what has happened is that while the EU has morphed from being a free trade area to a continent-spanning quasi-government, public sentiment hasn't kept up. For the EU to work as those now in Brussels apparently wish it to, would mean that the UK, Germany, France, Italy and all the remaining members would have to be placed in a relationship to Brussels that would mirror almost exactly the one we have between DC and the individual states.
    And THAT is what's causing the problem in the UK - there are too many Britons who recognize that as the natural outcome of further integration and simply don't see what advantages are to be gained by it.

  • Fritz Strand on January 18, 2013 10:12 AM:

    I don't pretend to have any deep knowledge of British politics, but I have been reading what is now called 'The Guardian Weekly' for over thirty years and now 'The Guardian' online for the last 7 years or so, but I think this comparison to the Tea Party is off the mark.

    It is abundantly clear the Brits are locked into a class system and that the better comparison would not be the tea party but the Romney's end of the Republican Party. Romney's behind closed doors speech which did real damage his campaign is the closest we get to Cameron's neo-Thatcherism.