Fish Without Chips, and David Cameron As UK’s John Boehner

If you get bored with U.S. politics this week, there’s always the impending Israeli election (in addition to a post here on Tuesday about the radicalized Israeli Right, I’d recommend a Noam Sheizaf piece in Foreign Affairs about the decline into fecklessness of the Israeli Left). But closer in time and place is David Cameron’s trip to Amsterdam tomorrow for a Big Speech on Britain’s relationship with the European Union.

At TNR, Alex Massie analyzes Cameron’s quandry over what to say in this speech from the perspectives of both Europe and British domestic politics. On the former topic, Massie points out that for all the angst in other EU countries (especially France) about Britain’s direction, there are countries within and especially on the periphery of the EU that think the UK could usefully create pressure for a more modest community (a sympathetic Finnish prime minister said the EU without the UK would be like “fish without chips”), so long as Cameron doesn’t overplay his hand and blow things up.

But it’s the domestic political pressure on Cameron from within his own Conservative Party that is the most interesting feature of Massie’s account:

To put it in American parlance, there is something of the Tea Party about the Tory eurosceptics—and in his efforts to placate them while retaining some dignity, there is something of John Boehner about poor Mr Cameron, too. His own preferences count for less than he might consider ideal. His party has him on the run and they know it.

A poll of 1,500 Conservative grass-roots activists published this week found that 38 percent of the Tory party’s keenest supporters want to leave the EU entirely while another 40 percent only support membership if Britain’s relationship with Europe is redefined as access to a common market and not much else. A poll published this week reported that one in ten Conservative supporters at the last election have switched their support, for the time being at any rate, to the UK Independence Party—a once fringe group whose principle policy is British withdrawal from the EU. As an indication of the way the political wind is blowing, UKIP has, according to some recent polls, supplanted Cameron’s coalition partners the Liberal Democrats as Britain’s third most popular party. That is, the most eurosceptic party is now more popular than the most europhile grouping.

So Cameron is in something of a box, much like John Boehner is in dealing with Barack Obama with a loud cadre of Tea Party-oriented backbenchers threatening revolt at every turn. But unlike Boehner, whose primary problem is an informal understanding known as the “Hastert Rule” whereby GOP House Speakers are supposed to ensure majority support in their own Caucus before bringing any major legislation to the floor, Cameron must consider the small but quite calamitous risk of Labour and backbench Tory members of the House of Common combining to topple the government (it’s true the only two times that has happened, in 1924 and 1979, minority governments were in power, but there’s a first time for everything). He doesn’t have much maneuvering room.

There are few obvious solutions to Cameron’s dilemma. The longer he equivocates the greater the calls for withdrawal become, but any attempt to make the case for Britain’s active role as a proper member of the European project is liable to be met with derision by much of his own party and most of the conservative press. Moreover, the promise of a referendum makes British withdrawal from the EU more likely than it would have been before the promise was made. The only way for Cameron to come out on top would be to issue a threat he does not want to carry out and have that threat taken sufficiently seriously by his remaining friends in Europe that they will agree, even at some cost to themselves, to allow Cameron to buy off his own party. It is not obvious why the French (or even the more sympathetic Germans) should agree to this.

A prime minister whose economic policies have largely failed, and whose party is trailing Labour in the polls by a healthy margin, doesn’t need to be touching off any Euro-crises. But that could happen tomorrow if Cameron doesn’t walk a very thin ledge above a precipitous height.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.