Cameron’s top man on Europe looks back and tells all about how a leader who wanted his party to stop banging on about Europe ended up destroying the UK’s place in the EU—and himselfby Ivan Rogers / November 25, 2017 / Leave a comment
On 24th November, Ivan Rogers gave a lecture at Hertford College, Oxford on David Cameron, having worked as Permanent Representative of the UK to the European Union while Cameron was Prime Minister. The talk was part of a Prospect/Hertford series on PMs since Margaret Thatcher and their relationships with the continent.
Rogers warns of the Brexit challenges ahead: “All we shall see, at very best, on UK-EU trade in 2018 is a political agreement on ambit, not legal texts.”
Here, find Charles Powell’s lecture on Thatcher, Chris Patten’s on John Major, Andrew Adonis’s on Tony Blair and Stewart Wood’s lecture on Gordon Brown.
I want, in this lecture, to attempt a serious examination of David Cameron’s approach to the question which has bedevilled British politics for two generations.
And, in so doing, to attempt to gain some distance from the political soap opera accounts and from the post referendum hysteria on all sides, and to offer an account of the issues and the politics with which Cameron was grappling, and some insights as to why he took the positions and decisions he did.
There is much that I cannot possibly cover in a single lecture. I am not going to offer thoughts on why the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party grew, radicalised, and I think markedly changed its focus. Nor try and analyse the public vote in June 2016. Nor go much outside the economic policy arena. Nor will I address the referendum campaign.
I cover many of the policy issues which contributed to the Brexit vote, all of which predate Cameron’s arrival in office. Any serious Brexit history has to span at least the last quarter century.
But my subject is David Cameron. So I start with why, having intended to stop his party obsessing about the European Union to the exclusion of nearly all else he believed they should be doing, he was unable to do so. Then I cover why the post financial crisis eurozone crisis very nearly ruptured the EU-UK relationship in 2011, and how Cameron tried to deal with that. Then I show why the decision to hold an in-out referendum stemmed from that crisis, and why the absolute core of the Cameron renegotiation agenda was already decided in 2012, centred on whether Britain’s berth in the EU but outside the eurozone could be made permanently sustainable, and was always primarily about British exceptionalism more than pan-EU reform. I next cover how the free movement and borders issue emerged much later as the central political problem for the renegotiation to address, and how and why that effort failed.
I will focus on Cameron personally, his policy thinking and his political approach.
But I can only start with the political position he inherited.
If one looks at the Eurobarometer polling on whether one’s country’s membership of the EU was a good or a bad thing, and compares the UK public’s response to those of the publics of the other major Member States, the UK’s line never once gets as high as any one of the other lines between 1998, the year after Tony Blair took office, and polling day in 2016.
Twelve of those 18 years were years of the Blair and Brown premierships. Deep public scepticism about the direction of the EU project and/or Britain’s place in it, is not a short term phenomenon.
Had there been a referendum in the UK on the Lisbon Treaty, which emerged, misbegotten, from the tortuous process begun in early century to draft a new Constitutional Treaty, who seriously doubts that the UK public would have voted “no,” and thereby killed it, and probably forced, much earlier and in different circumstances, the existential debate over British membership?
Cameron himself promised, when Leader of the Opposition, that there would be such a referendum, if the Treaty had not already been ratified by all Member States before he took office. By the time he took office, it HAD been universally ratified, including here.
Plenty in his own party ignored the phrase “if it had not already been ratified” and wanted him to reopen the whole issue post ratification. He did not. Could not. But what he did do was to legislate domestically in the European Union Act of 2011 to put an effective lock on any further UK commitment to any further steps towards political integration.
He clearly hoped, via that Act, to calm the party’s post Lisbon Treaty frenzy, and thereby to persuade it to “stop banging on about Europe,” as he put it in first first Party Conference speech as Conservative leader.
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His own view, often expressed to his close team, was that very few of the great domestic issues with which he wanted the Coalition government to grapple were much impacted by the EU, and that the public rarely viewed the EU question as amongst its central preoccupations.
In his view, the project to modernise his party, and render it electable, after, unprecedentedly in all Conservative Party history, three consecutive leaders had failed even to make it to Downing Street, was to reconnect it with what real voters cared about, and stop it obsessing over issues which most voters viewed as tangential to their lives.
Yet that stance was, within 18 months of Cameron’s taking office, effectively in tatters.
In a phrase: the eurozone crisis.
One of the questions I was most frequently asked by my EU colleagues both as UK EU Sherpa, which I was from late 2011 to 2013, and as the UK’s Permanent Representative till early this year, is why the eurozone turmoil post the financial crisis appeared to have destabilised British politics and policy on the EU, to a greater extent than their own countries’.
Many said, privately, that we were surely in a rather comfortable “have our cake and eat it” world, outside the…