Was David Cameron right to take the actions he did in Europe? It's fascinating that, superficially at least, everyone in politics is treating this as a matter of morality. In fact it's a prime example of moral (and even pragmatic) concerns being sacrificed for political expediency. So, once again, did David Cameron do the right thing?
In David Lynch's Inland Empire, tragic characters are doomed to repeat the actions of those in a film-within-a-film, a Polish tale called 47. The number 47 acquires ominous associations, eventually appearing on a door no-one wishes to pass through, like the portal to a latter-day Room 101. Bereft of his Polish allies (despite manifest compromises in the past), David Cameron, floundering at the gateway to Europe, is also afraid of the number 47. There are 47 MPs, it is reliably reported, who are definitely out for his blood. This is a magic number because it happens to represent 15.3% of the parliamentary party – just enough to force a leadership election which there is a very real chance he would lose.
Whilst this may come as a shock to some, those watching the Conservatives closely have observed the situation building for some time. Cameron rose to power because of his supreme blandness – he was the only man rival factions could agree on. He also seemed able to charm the public, to come across as a decent sort of chap who was ready to do away with troublesome aspects of the party's image. But these talents are very different from those required in a leader. Once established, Cameron appears to have thought that was sitting pretty. He liked power. He had less interest in government. Cheerfully delegating all the hard work (which is inevitably harder for a party without a majority), he developed a habit of clocking off early, of taking extended holidays as if he were an American president. Like any boss behaving that way, he swiftly lost goodwill. Add to this a willingness to ride roughshod over the concerns of the 1922 Committee and to try and ride out numerous political storms just by ignoring them, and it soon became evident that he was making more enemies than he could afford.
Cameron's big advantage was the coalition between his party and the LibDems. It was the perfect excuse for telling backbenchers he couldn't do everything the way they might like, particularly on Europe, where it is quietly rumoured that he holds personal views far more favourable than most in his party would tolerate. But whilst the coalition excuse bought off his own party for a while, it carried no weight with UKIP, who steadily grew like a leech on the Conservatives' shoulder, sucking away their constituency party members. This made the party faithful feel increasingly threatened. They had to do something.
And so we come back to the number 47, and Cameron's fateful decision to use his veto on the new EU fiscal arrangements. In return for staying in power he was prepared to sacrifice everything that made that power count for something. What he has done has not only cost him LibDem support (with Vince Cable reportedly threatening to resign) and placed the coalition in jeopardy, it has demonstrated to his backbenchers that they own him, body and soul. He is now little more than a puppet; it is no longer clear that he can even choose which tune to dance to.
And there's worse. Having superficially decreased the likelihood of his party giving him the boot, Cameron has made it more likely that his country will do so, one way or another. Because by replacing him, by disavowing his actions, Britain could go back to Europe and reopen negotiations from a stronger position than Cameron's original one. Having shown that it is possible for it to play its worst card, it could almost certainly negotiate a better deal – provided, of course, that the person at the helm had some guts.
What does all this mean? For the Conservatives, it's a triumph of party ideology over successful government, and in due course it may cost them dear. For the LibDems it looks humiliating, but if they're smart they'll keep Cameron on the run and extract a different set of prizes. At any rate, in the long term, they can only stand to benefit from the disintegration of the major political forces. That's why it's not actually a bad thing for them that UKIP are overtaking them in the polls (given that their own support is not yet actually shrinking beyond the levels it was at six months ago). UKIP may, in turn, be feeling very pleased with themselves, but their particular position makes it unlikely they'll go on to great things. They're a right wing SDP; they may rattle sabres, but when it comes to a general election they are neither distinctive nor rounded enough to gather much more than a protest vote.
Where this situation becomes really interesting is in relation to Scotland. Cameron's European antics have now created a situation in which the Scots potentially have much more to gain from independence than as the case before. There will be gaps in the market as England tears itself (and Wales and Northern Ireland) away from Europe; niches opening up which Scotland is perfectly positioned to exploit. Separate from England and close to the EU, Scotland could pick up the advantages England has dropped – and research suggests that when individual Scots finally make the big decision about how to vote in the independence referendum, the deciding issue will be money in their pockets. Because this isn't really about the niceties of international unions or who takes instructions from who. It isn't about great men and it isn't about party favours. It's the economy, stupid.