We are now halfway through the current Parliament, and the Prime
Minister has started looking forward to the next election. He has
begun to live dangerously.
Today, David Cameron will make his much-heralded speech on the
future of Britain's place in Europe. It was supposed to happen next
week, until the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, icily pointed out
that it would coincide with celebrations for the 50th anniversary
of the treaty that sealed the post-war reconciliation of France and
Germany. That would not have been the day for Mr Cameron to be
rattling his sabre about leaving the EU, if he does not get his way
over diluting its relationship with the UK. "Blackmail" one of Mrs
Merkel's colleagues called it.
Mr Cameron has got himself into a tight spot. The eurozone
crisis - and the unrelenting hostility of our europhobic press,
which never mentions that half Britain's trade is with the EU -
have created an increasingly contemptuous public attitude. At the
next election, Mr Cameron could, fatally, lose votes to the surging
UK Independence Party (UKIP). Many Tory backbenchers share its
His solution is to hijack a new EU treaty on revised
eurozone-governance structure, in order to force other nations to
loosen the rules on immigration, criminal justice, the working-time
directive, and more. The result would be put to the British public
in a referendum.
This is a perilous tactic. It is unlikely that the EU will agree
to rewrite treaty terms as radically as Mr Cameron would like. The
process will antagonise our European partners. But it will also
leave UK eurosceptics discontented; for they will be satisfied with
nothing less than an in-or-out referendum. That could set in train
an unpredictable sequence of events, which could force Mr Cameron -
or another Tory leader, if he is ousted in the process - to offer
the public a vote on quitting the EU.
Business leaders last week signed a letter saying that this
risky political strategy could damage economic confidence and
discourage foreign investors from setting up in the UK. The United
States, in an unusually bold diplomatic intervention, has warned
Britain that part of the US/UK special relationship comes from
London's being a "strong voice" in Europe.
But it is not just on Europe that Mr Cameron is sleepwalking
towards disaster. His decision to involve the British military in
war in Mali seems just as impulsive and high-handed. Ignoring the
lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan, he has committed British aircraft
to the French expedition to fight Islamist rebels in the African
deserts. Perhaps he believes horribly familiar intelligence
suggesting that Mali could become a haven for al-Qaeda. Perhaps he
just sees it as an easy way to placate France, whose President has
been scathing about what he has called Mr Cameron's "à la carte"
approach to Europe.
An attempt to curb the Malian Islamists may be a good thing.
These are the people who recently sentenced a woman to 100 lashes
with an electric cable for giving a drink of water to a male
stranger, in breach of their notion of sharia. But there has been
no debate about the decision, or whether the military tactics being
deployed - bombing towns - are the right ones. It will last only "a
matter of weeks", the French Foreign Minister says. But history
suggests that such affairs are often much more costly in time,
money, and lives than initial blithe optimism suggests. Western
involvement may also create the very kind of opposition that it
sets out to counter.
Mr Cameron needs to take a deal more care. We do not want the
unravelling of the single market; nor can we be sucked into another