What a kerfuffle, eh? The press do love a bit of a fight.
Most journalism is about disagreement, difference and dissent. It creates drama and drives a story. In general, in British politics, this means the arguments between Labour and the Tories. Over the last decade or so, fleet street have enjoyed milking the Blair/Brown divide within the Labour party, which was always good for a headline or two.
However, nowadays at least, Labour has a problem making a case on issues like the NHS, the
economy, and defence, no matter how right we might be. That’s because the media doesn’t want to write about Ed Balls’ disagreements with George Osborne, or Andy Burnham’s differences with Andrew Lansley.
That’s not where the money is. The money is in the slightest sign of a split within the coalition.
So it’s been a bit of a boon for the media in the last few days.
As I write, Cameron is making to the House of Commons on the European summit and what it means to Britain. Nick Clegg is nowhere to be seen and any number of jokes about ‘alarm clock Britain’ will be being penned up in the press gallery above the Speaker’s chair.
The reason that will be given for his absence will probably be some prior engagement that couldn’t be cancelled. But the truth is far more likely to be that if he turned up, he’d be jeered by the Tories behind him on the government benches.
This is all because of his strangely evolving reaction to Cameron’s announcement of the use of Britain’s veto at the EU summit.
As an aside, Cameron and the Tory party using the word veto is a bit of a misnomer. I’m not sure it means what the Prime Minister seems to think it does.
The dictionary defines veto as:
the power or right vested in one branch of a government to cancel or postpone the decisions, enactments, etc., of another branch, especially the right of a president, governor,or other chief executive to reject bills passed by the legislature.
I really do struggle to see what exactly has been cancelled or postponed other than Britain’s chance to influence the future of the European Union for the next few years.
And I’m pretty sure that Nick Clegg agreed with me. At least he did at some point over the weekend. On Friday morning, he was telling the press (sniffing for splits as usual) that Cameron’s manoeuvre was probably in the best interest of the nation. By Friday evening, he was frustrated with Cameron’s manoeuvre. On Saturday, he was telling Toby Helm that he was ‘furious’ with Cameron’s manoeuvre. On Sunday, he was unleashing this tirade on the morning politics shows about Cameron’s manoeuvre. By Monday afternoon, he’s
gone into hiding otherwise engaged.
It’s all a bit unwise from Clegg, really. Creating splits in the coalition, which in theory could lead to a general election, when you’re in single digits in the national polls is not a clever thing to do! His invisibility today combined with Danny Alexander and David Laws both backtracking on national television to try to paper over any splits that may have appeared, like the tenants of a slowly subsiding terraced house.
The LibDem leadership obviously feel they’ve made an error in creating the sign of disagreement. But I think their mistake is not to have disagreed in the first place. Clegg has committed that most grievous of politicians’ sins. He’s flip-flopped. First supporting, then disagreeing and now rowing back faster than an Oxford coxed eight. Clegg is left losing his rag over a decision that has broad popular support with the public, rightly or wrongly.
The Tory European actions are all very short-termist in their thinking, or at least I think they are. Losing influence across an entire continent to keep influence with 305 parliamentary colleagues, strikes me as pissing off the teachers so the kids in class will like you.
You have to wonder just when David Cameron decided to use his ‘veto’ given that he’d already planned in advance to be dining with Euro-sceptic backbenchers that same evening, despite talks still going on in France.
You could also say the same about Clegg’s anger as well, of course. Did he betray his true feelings on Friday morning and then try to keep the UK’s hand in the game with the EU by letting them know some in Government are pro-Europe? Was Nick attempting diplomatic relations there? Or was he just being stupidly naïve?
Update: Clegg’s office have apparently not gone with the prior engagement argument. They’re just saying he’s not attending the PM’s statement because “he doesn’t want to be a distraction”. If we can’t see him in the chamber, we’ll apparently forget all about any disagreement, difference and dissent.