The FT James Blitz on “David Cameron pays the price of tactical failure”, and my response.

Here is David Blitz article on David Cameron. I post the article, and then my comment on it. I add Edward Harkins FT comment on this article with regard to Scotland.

Blitz rightly points out that the PM’s biggest challenge was always going to be Europe.

David Blitz article in the FT. Here it is.

“David Cameron listed many of the achievements of his six years in office as he stood in Downing Street on the day after June’s historic EU referendum. These included rebuilding the economy after the financial crisis and legislating to allow gay marriage.

But the grim reality for the departing British prime minister is that he will forever be remembered as the man who took his country out of the EU.

It is an ironic epitaph for a politician who once vowed to stop his party from “banging on about Europe”, the issue that has haunted the Conservatives since Margaret Thatcher’s reign. It is an unfortunate one, too, given that he is the most successful leader of the Tories in decades, returning them to power in 2010 after a long spell in the wilderness.

But as with the ill-fated Anthony Eden, who resigned after the 1956 Suez crisis, the manner of Mr Cameron’s going is likely to be remembered far more than any other aspect of his time in office. In many ways, it is right this should be the case: for Europe is the issue that has dogged his premiership above all others and on which he has failed to master his party.

Mr Cameron became Tory leader in 2005 in the aftermath of the party’s third successive election defeat. Within weeks of his appointment, he was hailed as the man who could end what seemed New Labour’s invincibility under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Part of the new leader’s appeal was his relaxed and easy-going manner, including media appearances in which he refused to wear a tie. But he also understood that if the Tories were to have any chance of winning over the electorate, they needed to modernise their image after years of being dubbed the “nasty party” — the phrase popularised by Theresa May, his successor in Downing St.

Mr Cameron put his years in opposition to good use, committing the party to green policies, famously being pictured in the Arctic with a pack of huskies. He pledged to boost spending on international development, a promise that was anathema to the Tory rank and file. Above all, he recognised that the Tories would never be trusted by the public unless they made a cast-iron commitment to properly fund the National Health Service.

Cameron and Osborne are to blame for this sorry pass. The prime minister thought he could win a vote aimed at settling a Tory feud.

Mr Cameron’s slick way with slogans — most famously his appeal to “hug a hoodie” to encourage social inclusion — led some critics to suspect that he had not shed his past life as a public relations executive for Carlton, a television company.

However, the Tory leader preferred to describe himself as a pragmatist. He fully lived up to that label after the inconclusive 2010 election when he speedily formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, the first Britain had seen in peacetime since the 1930s. The surprise alliance with Nick Clegg was his most statesmanlike achievement: Britain was at that moment in the throes of a financial crisis and could not have afforded a hiatus in government.

Leading the coalition was an arduous task, not least because the prime minister and his chancellor George Osborne were committed to a tough and unpopular austerity programme to reduce Britain’s budget deficit. But confronted by political adversity, he seemed to have the luck of the devil. In 2011, he survived the phone hacking scandal, in which his former director of communications, Andy Coulson, was implicated. In 2014, he looked like he might lose the referendum on Scottish independence. Somehow, he managed to wriggle out of both.

On foreign and defence policy, his record was patchy. Under his premiership, Britain has often seemed in diplomatic retreat, notably absent in standing up to Russia in the crisis over Ukraine. Savage cuts in UK defence spending in his first term raised doubts in the US about Britain’s status as “first ally”.

The one exception to this laid-back approach to diplomacy came in 2011 when, together with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Mr Cameron rallied Nato to lead a humanitarian mission in Libya. The mission ended up toppling Colonel Muammer Gaddafi. But the failure by both the UK and France to follow through and stabilise Libya has been widely criticised as one of the west’s most grievous foreign policy errors since the Iraq war.

The biggest challenge to Mr Cameron was always going to be on Europe. Britain’s voters have shown limited interest in the EU and their indifference continued throughout Mr Cameron’s premiership. But many Tory MPs are ardent Europhobes for whom rule by Brussels is an affront. Rather than standing up to his backbenchers, Mr Cameron has accommodated their obsession for years.

To ensure his election as Tory leader in 2005, Mr Cameron pulled the Conservatives out of the European People’s party — the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament — even though this mystified Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. In 2011, he used Britain’s veto to block a new EU-wide treaty, leaving 23 other states to forge a pact to salvage the single currency. The move was cheered by his backbenchers at home but further diminished British influence in the EU.

Two years later, he made the ultimate concession to his MPs, pledging to hold an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership if he won a second term. Mr Osborne had urged him not to make the commitment, arguing that it was unlikely to heal the Conservative’s party’s neuralgia and was likely to inflame it. But Mr Cameron pressed ahead regardless, believing that he needed to fend off the challenge from the UK Independence party. His decision may have helped him to win an outright majority at last year’s general election. But to many, it was the ultimate example in his “kick the can down the road” exercise in party management, one that has ended in a debacle of huge proportions.

By leaving office early, Mr Cameron is paying the price for his tactical failure on the European question. But the debacle also raises questions about his political character. The prime minister has always been rated as a strong intellect, famously described by his former Oxford tutor as one of the ablest students he ever taught. While the British public has never warmed to him in the way they once did Tony Blair, he has always been quietly respected by audiences for his calm manner.

But Mr Cameron has never shaken off the suspicion of being a man who wanted to be prime minister for the sake of holding the highest office and never had a vision for the country. As time passes, some may reflect on some of the good things that were achieved under his premiership. But those achievements are likely to be dwarfed by the giant miscalculation that he made over Britain’s place in Europe.

This piece, originally published on June 24, was updated after Theresa May won the Conservative party leadership

My comment.

No. Cameron did not make tactical mistakes. He made fundamental strategic mistakes. Many would argue that mistake No 1 was to offer “a cast iron guarantee” on the Lisbon Treaty. That is arguable. He decided the risk low enough to make a bid for the Conservative party leadership. The mistake was not to stick to that guarantee, regardless of whether Gordon Brown had or had not signed the Lisbon Treaty. The most precious asset of any political leader is their credibility. He sacrificed it before getting in to 10 Downing Street.

The apparent reason for not implementing his cast iron guarantee was that a Treaty had been signed, and by international law, could not be revoked by an advisory referendum. All very nice and dandy for international lawyers of a certain stripe, but not believable. The House of Commons had accepted the instrument of the referendum in 1975. Cameron had promised one. The Lisbon Treaty itself was, and is, deeply flawed, allowing whomever to cherrypick what they like from the text. Not least, by giving the country what he had promised, he would have won a No to Lisbon, the fourth No after France, The Netherlands and Ireland. Most importantly, the referendum would have been on something specific: Yes or No to the Treaty.

Ditching his cast iron guarantee put a strong wind into Farage’s sails. The chaterati initially dismissed this as “right wing Tories”, and clucked about “moving on”. In fact, Farage’ appeal was to the patriotic working class of England(many of whom are Scots, Irish or Welsh), the Welsh, and as has been seen in the recent referendum, 38% of the Scottish electorate(despite the relentless nationalism of the SNP). By 2012/3, it was becoming obvious to the Tory leadership that Farage had to be taken on.

Hence the Bloomberg 2013 speech. This was a major strategic error. I imagine that whoever advised him, had occasionally traversed the Channel to explore the inhabitants of the other shore, their peculiarities, habits and their views. There was no sign of this in the speech. It definitely played to a sensible theme of Europe as requiring a flexible governance regime to accomodate its diversity. It pointed in the direction of what many people would consider a desirable direction for the EU. But it did not consider that Paris is determined to cling to its European superstate vision; so are the EU institutions; while Germany, the hegemonic power of the EU, plays on the chessboard of a Europe of the states; on the chessboard of a federal Europe; on the NATO chessboard; and on the global chessboard, cultivating special relationships with China, and via the backdoor with Russia.

The speech also made it important for Cameron to deliver.

Then came the big bet on Scotland. I refer to Edward Harkins below. Followed by the electoral victory of 2015.

A strategic thinker would ask something along the following lines: what is the prospect of my being able to negotiate with the EU the changes that I outlined in the Bloomberg speech? The first answer would run: what do you mean by the EU, Prime Minister? Could you be specific? Out of this discussion would come the realisation that the EU is a many, many headed hydra, some nice faces, some less nice. But all chattering away, at a high level of platitude but always really talking institutional or national interest. So the conclusion would have been: better not negotiate.

What to do, then? I once wrote an account of Felipe Gonzalez’ brilliant rearrangement of Spain’s foreign policies in the 1980s. Gonzalez resisted the big picture, broad brush approach that was being bandied about in the public arena, and went for low cost, doable tweeks. By 1989, he had brought Spain to an international position it had not enjoyed since the late eighteenth century.So lets take this as an example, and start with the fundamentals.

The EU is no more than an alliance of sovereign states. The alliance has a plethora of documents and treaties, interpreted liberally by EU institutions, the terms of which are  cherry picked not least by the mama of all cherry pickers, Germany(2003 budget criteria; 2010 rejection fo EU solidarity commitment; 6% current account surplus; burdening Greece with more debt; bilateral talks with Turkey; exempt Landesbanken from the EU “Banking Union”…).

Each one of these sovereign states have there own constitution. The only requirement for membership in the EU alliance is that the member state runs along the lines of a constitutional and market democracy. The UK ticks all these boxes.It is therefore quite within its powers to change its own constitutional arrangements.

The easiest way forward which Cameron rejected was to change the terms of the European Communities Act Section 2.1., which accepted the supremacy of EU law, unconditionally. Neither France nor Germany do. Finding the right wording would have meant hiring an available QC, making the tweek, and passing the revision through parliament. No negotiations required. Just a statement that there was no automaticity at all that EU law prevailed in the UK, but rather a presumption that the UK as a sovereign has a right to assess,amend, accept or reject.

This simple low cost tweek could have been accompanied by a prime ministerial statement that the UK valued the rule of law, and that the EU had an awful long way to go before it measured up to that principle. It would have been possible to quote the German Constitutional Court’s judgement on the Lisbon Treaty, extracts of which would make Farage various speeches in the European Parliament  sound rather moderate.

EU voices chanted, Mrs Merkel’s voice quite audible, that free movement of people was intangible. This is readily challengeable, but was not. The Lisbon Treaty mentions free movement but in relationship to security. The way that immigration was and is being handled had little to do with security, the first requirement of a state to its citizens. The Lisbon Treaty also commits to the collective achievement of growth and high employment; there is no sign of such collective endeavour at all. In other words, it would have been possible to claim special circumstances unilaterally, while recognising the UK’s commitment to the principle. Whatever the reaction in the EU, the Farage balloon would have been pricked. Instead, Cameron allowed Mrs Merkel to energetically inflate Farage by sticking to “principle”.

But no. Cameron accepted advise to go on a trip around Europe, negotiating pathetically. Mrs Merkel, Germany’s female Bismarck, offered nothing. Maybe the UK will vote out, she said she feared. In any case Cameron played dice with a calculator who has only German interests in mind, disguised of course under concern for “Europe”. He lost.

Cameron was and is brilliant, a tactician, but a strategic idiot. This is most probably how he will go down in history.

This is Edward Harkin’s comment in the FT comments column.

The Brexit disaster coming after the warning of the Scottish referendum warning  suggests that the Westminster caste still seems unable to be up to the tasks now confronting the UK. To paraphrase Prof David Hennessy, I fear that this UK Government will lose us Scotland and lose us Europe.

Have to say that this is a very evidently metro-London based piece. A one sentence mention – virtually an aside –  on the Scottish Independence referendum. Yet that referendum was the precursor for the Brexit debacle. Approaching 50% of the voters opted to exit the UK against all the Project Fear warning s of the Union’s Great and Good; hardly a ringing  endorsement for the the Union. As with the Leave vote on Brexit, so it was with the preceding Scottish referendum. Much of the ‘Yes’ for independence came from a disaffected, disillusioned population with ‘a visceral hatred of Westminster’ (to quote Channel 4’s Jon Snow). The Westminster political caste, and it’s following London-centric UK media, failed to perceive (or respect?) the large Scottish  ‘Yes’ vote as an warning. Instead, the morning after the referendum ‘victory the UK PM Cameron opted for the populist trickery (and constitution morass) of EVEL. That was instead of working on immediate delivery of the risible ‘Vow’ by Gordon Brown and other Unionists on, ‘a modern equivalent of Home Rule for Scotland’. Thus we are now contemplating the growing possibility of a second referendum on Scottish independence.

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About Jonathan Story, Professor Emeritus, INSEAD

Jonathan Story is Emeritus Professor of International Political Economy at INSEAD. Prior to joining INSEAD in 1974, he worked in Brussels and Washington, where he obtained his PhD from Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He has held the Marusi Chair of Global Business at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Graduate Schoold of Business, Fordham University, New York. He is preparing a monograph on China’s impact on the world political economy, and another on a proposal for a contextual approach to business studies. He has a chapter forthcoming on the Euro crisis. His latest book is China UnCovered: What you need to know to do business in China, (FT/ Pearson’s, 2010) (www.chinauncovered.net) His previous books include “China: The Race to Market” (FT/Pearsons, 2003), The Frontiers of Fortune, (Pitman’s, 1999); and The Political Economy of Financial Integration in Europe : The Battle of the Systems,(MIT Press, 1998) on monetary union and financial markets in the EU, and co-authored with Ingo Walter of NYU. His books have been translated into French, Italian, German, Spanish, Chinese, Korean and Arabic. He is also a co-author in the Oxford Handbook on Business and Government(2010), and has contributed numerous chapters in books and articles in professional journals. He is a regular contributor to newspapers, and has been four times winner of the European Case Clearing House “Best Case of the Year” award. His latest cases detail hotel investments in Egypt and Argentina, as well as a women’s garment manufacturer in Sri Lanka and a Chinese auto parts producer. He teaches courses on international business and the global political economy. At the INSEAD campus, in Fontainebleau and Singapore, he has taught European and world politics, markets, and business in the MBA, and PhD programs. He has taught on INSEAD’s flagship Advanced Management Programme for the last three decades, as well as on other Executive Development and Company Specific courses. Jonathan Story works with governments, international organisations and multinational corporations. He is married with four children, and, now, thirteen grandchildren. Besides English, he is fluent in French, German, Spanish, Italian, reads Portuguese and is learning Russian. He has a bass voice, and gives concerts, including Afro-American spirituals, Russian folk, classical opera and oratorio.
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2 Responses to The FT James Blitz on “David Cameron pays the price of tactical failure”, and my response.

  1. Jonathan I have only just been directed to this excellent piece (via the Middle East!). With the catastrophe of the Brexit vote just past, it seems that on Prof David Henessy’s fears it’s a case now of, ‘one down…’?
    [BTW appreciate the citing… but taken a bit aback at being first referred to as ‘David’ Harkins :-)]

    Like

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