Seldom in recent years has the parliamentary Conservative party sounded so united behind its leader as it did yesterday afternoon. Glancing this morning through Hansard’s report of David Cameron’s statement on the European Council, one finds the following Tory backbenchers who congratulated him on the outcome: Sir Peter Tapsell, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Sir William Cash, Sir Richard Ottaway, John Redwood, Sir Nicholas Soames, Sir Gerald Howarth, Peter Lilley, Cheryl Gillan, James Duddridge, Sir Edward Leigh, Christopher Chope, James Clappison, David T.C. Davies, David Nuttall, Stewart Jackson, Stephen O’Brien, Margot James, Nadhim Zahawi, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Jesse Norman, Andrew Selous, Peter Bone, Julian Smith, Penny Mordaunt, Simon Kirby and Nigel Evans. I make that 27 names.
Again and again the word “congratulate” is used. Cameron’s defeat by the margin of 26 votes to two on the question of the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker has gone down exceptionally well with the Conservative Party, and, it would appear, with the wider British public.
This is not just, or indeed mainly, a question of the merits or demerits of that particular appointment. It is a question of political culture. We have an adversarial system. It is set up for argument. The House of Commons is arranged for a clash between two sides which face each other in debate, and try to defeat each other. Every so often, the voters have the opportunity to decide which side has won.
The German system is set up for consensus. The underlying assumption is that in the end, the entire political class should end up thinking the same thing. For four years in the late 1990s, I attempted to report on German politics for British newspaper readers. The task was very difficult, for the process of building a consensus is not, to British eyes, an exciting one. It tends to require many years of negotiation, conducted often in an opaque and abstract language which is designed to veil rather than dramatise the power struggle which is in fact taking place.
Angela Merkel is very good at this kind of politics: at working out how to reconcile all the competing interests in a negotiation, establishing where the centre of gravity lies and making herself the leader of whatever consensus has slowly emerged. Her predecessor, Helmut Kohl, was likewise very good at this. He built a consensus in favour of the euro which has endured to this day. He did this by the masterly manoeuvre of adopting a European policy – the adoption of the single currency – in which the opposition believed more sincerely than his own party did. The opposition was left with nothing to say. It had been subsumed into Kohl’s system, which also required the ruthless suppression of any dissent among his own Christian Democrats. Kohl was a power politician of genius, who took no interest in economics.
The appointment of Juncker was supposed to be made by consensus. That was how these things had always been done in the past. For politicians who learned their trade, and established their tradition of behaviour, in Bonn, consensus is the only way to do these things. You talk for a very long time behind closed doors in order to decide at last, after session after session of horse-trading, on a candidate – usually a rather mediocre, uninspiring, middle-of-the-road candidate – on whom you can all agree, or pretend to agree, with appropriate compensation for those who have not got what they want.
Cameron challenged this way of doing things. In British eyes, he wanted a more sporting contest: an actual race, decided by a vote. One should not exaggerate his achievement: he did not manage to field another runner. But he got his vote, and lost it by 26 votes to two. Ed Miliband said this showed Cameron did not understand how things are done in Europe. But a large number of British politicians, journalists and members of the public could scarce forbear to cheer what the Prime Minister was doing. He was introducing that sporting element without which politics becomes intolerably dull.
Will Cameron be able to go on doing this? As one reads the Hansard, one sees that many of his backbenchers want this skirmish to be followed by more substantial clashes. After remarking that the Prime Minister is once again “the toast of Somerset”, Jacob Rees-Mogg goes on to point out the “ineluctable logic” of the Prime Minister’s position: namely that Britain “should oppose any further moves to the integration of justice and home affairs…and most particularly that we should not opt in to the European arrest warrant”.
The Prime Minister defended opting in to “a small number of measures that will actually help us to catch criminals and terrorists, and to keep our people safe”. Cameron is part of the consensus in favour of the European arrest warrant. His Eurosceptic backbenchers know this, and will be watching him like hawks. The subtext of this outpouring of congratulations can be summarised as “kindly go on doing what we want, and on matters of real substance”.