25 Oct 2011

Where next for dented David Cameron?

As far as anyone in Whitehall can work out, no British prime minister has ever missed a Commonwealth heads of government meeting and David Cameron desperately doesn’t want to be the first to let Her Majesty down at this one. The PM has already dumped chunks of his travel diary for this week – Japan, New Zealand – to attend a stand-off with his parliamentary party and a Brussels gathering on Wednesday.

But that mini euro pre-summit at around 6pm tomorrow might drag on. It’s scheduled, when last I checked, for only one hour…hard to get all 27 EU leaders to sit down in that time, let alone say anything constructive.

This “Happy Hour” summit though will be preceded by an afternoon of bi-laterals and arm-twisting in which the PM will be hoping something can be achieved. The eurozone 17 then have their own crunch meeting. But if things are looking shaky, if the deal is still elusive, timings can shift. Is it really wise to leave Brussels when the destiny of the euro is being determined?

While the PM wrestles with all that, MPs are wondering where last night’s rebellion leaves David Cameron at home. One senior Lib Dem I spoke to said “good for us – he needs us more than ever.” Not that the Lib Dem MP thought that his party would be helping David Cameron with any repatriation of powers from Brussels any time soon. Read Alex Barker in the Financial Times and you get the impression Germany will do whatever it takes to make sure the UK doesn’t get an opportunity to turn a mini treaty change on fiscal union into an opportunity for repatriation of powers.

A whip said he thought there were five Tory MPs who consciously abstained on top of the 81 (including tellers) who voted against the government whip. Michael Gove had an uncomfortable interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme this morning when he was repeatedly unable to give any comfort to rebel backbenchers wanting to know when they get their Eurosceptic meat.

Another problem, which Michael Gove not surprisingly dismissed, is the atmospherics that contributed to last night’s rebellion. The education secretary said the vote was all about Europe and all about principle. I spoke to plenty of MPs who rebelled who said it was, for them, actually about personnel management, aloofness, a sense that David Cameron was just in politics for his own aggrandisement and that they were treated like irrelevant oiks who fancied biting back.

And how do you manage this level of disgruntlement? One whip said to me today: “I’ve got no f***ing sweeties to hand out.” The best account you can read on what he means is here – former MP Paul Goodman has “done the maths” about Tory male MPs’ promotion prospects given there’s a coalition, an aversion to reshuffle too much and a wish to get more women into prominent government posts. Yesterday’s rebellion tells you how many Tory MPs have already “done the maths” for themselves.

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