Britain’s moorings as a member of the European Union have become looser in recent weeks. It is too early to say yet that we are on the path towards exit, but that prospect seems a little more likely.
First there were the European elections, with the United Kingdom Independence party harvesting voters’ pain over immigration, globalisation and the EU.
Then came David Cameron’s humiliating defeat over attempting to stop Jean-Claude Juncker becoming president of the European commission.
There is a precedent for opposing commission president nominees – but not one ending in such abject failure. In 2004 the then Labour government successfully mobilised support to stop Guy Verhofstadt from becoming commission president, resulting in the nomination of Manuel Barroso instead. Different government. Different approach to Europe. Very different result.
Even John Major managed to stop another candidate, Jean-Luc Dehaene, from becoming commission president.
But Cameron tried and failed, then revelled in his failure.
Third, there was Cameron’s reshuffle. This resulted in the appointment of a foreign secretary who has said he would recommend withdrawal from the EU if it is not changed to his liking. And in nominating Jonathan Hill as the next UK commissioner the prime minister has appointed probably Britain’s lowest profile ever nominee for this position.
It is not yet clear what portfolio Hill will get. It may be that after such a public defeat over Juncker, the United Kingdom manages to secure a major portfolio as a crackerjack pencil consolation prize for the prime minister’s humiliation last month. But if that does not happen it will be a double defeat in a few weeks for the UK and leave us with less influence than in living memory.
And, finally, there are the moves to withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights which have again been facilitated by the reshuffle, a move not directly related to EU membership but driven by the same isolationist impulse as that which seeks to take us out.
Where does all of this leave the UK?
Although we are a country which prides ourselves on being a good place to invest, innovate and grow business – a position we should cherish and hold on to – we have now placed bigger question marks over the certainty of our economic future than for decades. Some on the right welcome this as they dream of a kind of offshore Switzerland or Norway but it poses a direct threat to the UK economy, investment in the UK and UK jobs.
Second, our voice has become diminished within the EU. We are now looked on as the problem child of the EU, a difficulty to be dealt with instead of a leading voice within it for change and reform. This is tragic when the issues of creating jobs, breaking down further the barriers to growth within Europe and meeting the next challenges of globalisation are so urgent. There will always, of course, be times when a member state has to stand up for its interests and will not agree to things. Everyone understands that. But there is a big difference between that and an approach which is all about ‘give us what we want or we’re leaving’.
All of this might be defensible if it was a clearly thought-out strategy on the part of the prime minster. But, instead, it has the look of short-term tactics and fixes for the moment rather than a plan for the country’s future. The referendum promise was a response to Europhobe backbenchers and the threat of Ukip. The losing battle over Juncker was a moment for Cameron to bask in glorious defeat. The renegotiation seems to have been embarked upon without considering what allies there might be and what happens if others say no.
If the Tories are re-elected this prime minister could end up leading the country out of Europe by default. It is one thing to change your country’s destiny because you mean to and want to. It is another entirely to do it by putting short-term party management before the national interest. That really is the biggest leadership failing of all.
Pat McFadden MP is a former minister of state for business, innovation and skills