Normally when Speaker Bercow drags out a statement from the Prime Minister to over an hour and a half, the PM starts to look a bit pained. Today David Cameron looked as though he’d quite like a bit more: he’d spent most of the afternoon listening to Conservatives telling him how great he is and how pleased they are with him.
It must have been an odd sensation to see MPs like John Redwood rising to congratulate him on his failure to block Jean-Claude Juncker. Some Tories went further: Stewart Jackson told the Chamber that this episode of Cameron standing up to Europe showed he had ‘lead in his pencil’ (Cameron told him, rather confusingly, that he would ‘er, let the relevant people know’). Stephen O’Brien decided to offer a definition of going over the top by telling the Chamber that he hoped ‘the Prime Minister takes inspiration from the fact that in a previous battle of Britain, we saw off many Junckers before’. Some MPs laughed at that, while others recoiled.
How did Cameron have such a pleasant time in the Chamber when he failed to block Juncker? It didn’t look as though it was going to be so comfortable when Ed Miliband started his response to the statement. The Labour leader started out scornful, and made a good case for the failure of the Prime Minister to persuade other European leaders of his point of view. But he seemed to lose his way, and then continue trudging along without adding a great deal for far too long. He waffled to the extent that Tory MPs managed to build up a good wall of noise and unsettle him, and that Bercow intervened to say he was sure the Opposition leader would conclude his remarks soon. George Osborne was looking pointedly at his watch in parts.
Miliband’s case was, Cameron argued, rather undermined by his party’s decision to stand alongside the Conservatives in opposing Juncker. Of course, it is not mutually exclusive to argue that someone is right to oppose a candidate and then to complain that they mucked it up when their opposition failed to move other European leaders. But the Labour leader was insufficiently clear on this point. His backbench colleague Barry Sheerman made the case far more forcefully and in just a few sentences rather than a convoluted waffle when he made his point an hour later:
‘Can I say to the Prime Minister that some of us who would agree with him on the need for reform in Europe but are basically pro-Europe are rather disappointed and depressed by what happened in the European Council, and for the following reasons: that many of us think that Europe expanded a bit too far, too fast, but we want the reforms and we want them urgently. But what’s happened in Europe in the last few days has made the task of reform much more difficult and the fact of the matter is when we look back on this day when only his barmy army seem to be so well pleased, I think the trouble is brewing for all of us.’
Miliband should have focused on his disappointment that the Prime Minister failed to read the signals from other European leaders, that Labour’s support had included a degree of good faith that Cameron could persuade others, and that reform in Europe is now more difficult because the Prime Minister personally squandered good will. He could have pressed the Prime Minister for evidence of a good working relationship with the Germans, when so much of the failure over Juncker seems to have been about his failure to read Angela Merkel. Miliband tried to do this in his response, but was not forceful or sincere, which allowed Cameron to accuse him of being ‘weak, opportunistic and wrong’. The problem for Miliband is not that he opposed Juncker and is now complaining, but that he is complaining that Cameron made a mess of things without suggesting that he would have done any better himself, or even that he would have tried.
On that good working relationship with the Germans, Number 10 sources tried to argue afterwards that there were plenty of signs that Cameron and Merkel had a strong partnership, including working together on the EU Budget cut, and George Osborne working with Wolfgang Schauble to protect the interests of countries not in the euro. But this is the big problem for Cameron which Miliband failed to highlight: he thought he had Merkel’s support and he didn’t in 2011 when he ended up pulling out of the fiscal compact, and he thought he had Merkel’s support this year when he tried to block Juncker and he failed.
Cameron had to shift his language significantly over the course of that anti-Juncker campaign from confident briefings suggesting he really could stop the man, to arguing that it was important to take a principled stand even if no-one else agreed. Today he appeared to shift his language again on the referendum. The most revealing answer of the long session came in response to this question from Douglas Carswell:
‘What would have to happen for my honourable friend to come back from his renegotiations and recommend that people vote out?’
‘Well I have set out my approach which is to always follow the national interest, now I think it is in the national interest to renegotiate our position in Europe, to secure the changes that I have set out, and I don’t start a negotiation believing that I won’t achieve those things, I set out wanting to achieve them, wanting to come back to this country, but I will always do what is in the national interest.’
This sounded as though the Prime Minister is now prepared to contemplate voting to leave the European Union. And while he later clarified his position by saying he would want to vote ‘yes’ to stay in the EU if he got the reforms he was looking for, Cameron seemed to be relying a little more on the conditional than he has previously. His stance until today has been that he’s so confident he’ll get the reforms that he doesn’t even need to think about voting to leave. It will be interesting to see whether he sticks to what seems to be the new line of voting to stay if he gets the reforms. Perhaps he does feel a little chastened by his Juncker failure, even if this afternoon’s session in the Commons gave the impression that he’d won.