13 Dec 2011

Huhne to Cabinet: I should have been consulted

Cabinet had a group therapy session today on Europe. Lib Dems shared their pain. Conservatives explained their difficulties. On the whole, there was a combined effort one Cabinet minister said to “keep down the heat”.

Nick Clegg, Danny Alexander and Michael Moore explained to Conservatives why they were disappointed with the veto. Nick Clegg talked about how it would be wise not to take an obstructive approach over whether the 26 should be allowed to use EU institutions.

I get the impression that the government is thinking of saying the buildings are open to the 26, no problem, and there could be discussion about whether they get to use the personnel and powers, but that would all be subject to some sort of negotiation. (Some Tory backbenchers are fizzing about this – one called it “a cave-in by a different method.”)

As for the negotiations and the veto, Lib Dems in Cabinet made it clear that they thought, as this was the start of the process and not the conclusion, the UK should’ve stayed in the process, not opted out by using the veto. Vince Cable focused on the impact on business of what was done in the dead of night in Brussels.

Jeremy Hunt and Justine Greening were amongst the Tory ministers who said the prime minister had no option but to veto – that you need a bottom line in European negotiations and if you don’t defend it, you end up worse off in every subsequent negotiation. Both Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson, who lobbied the PM for a hard line ahead of the Brussels summit, remained silent in the discussion.

Chris Huhne took a different tack and talked about how “proper procedures” for negotiations had not been used. He said when he was negotiating in Durban on climate change talks, he made sure that he checked in with his ministerial colleagues as positions changed in Durban. There were “write-rounds”, he said, to keep them in the loop, and as deputy chair of the Cabinet sub-committee on European affairs he, Chris Huhne, should’ve been consulted over the European negotiations during the actual negotiations in Brussels, not just told the negotiating line beforehand.

That, you will notice, is a world away from saying Nick Clegg wasn’t consulted properly, and I understand was not regarded as particularly supportive by the leadership.

Chris Huhne is, of course, the man who confronted David Cameron in Cabinet in May over the “No to AV” campaign leaflets. If that was an “8” or a “9” on impact in the room – some ministers wondered where it was going and whether Chris Huhne was about to walk out – today was more of a “7”. It rates that high because after the climate change secretary’s contribution to the round table discussion, he didn’t stop there.

He broke one of the unwritten conventions of Cabinet by interrupting the prime minister twice as he summed up the 50-minute discussion on Europe (once to say he didn’t think the PM had addressed the points he’d raised and once when the prime minister was saying he didn’t want people blaming officials).

What most at Cabinet will probably take away, though, is Nick Clegg’s declaration that he will have a new “focus” on Europe. He is clearly interested in trying to get back to a treaty of the 27 if at all possible. A big “if”, but it shows a direction of travel that Nick Clegg wants to go in. And in the coalition there is a paradoxical rule – you are at your strongest when you are at your weakest, meaning you get concessions when you feel done over by the other side.

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