Thursday, 15 December 2011

European conference triumphs often turn sour


David Cameron bestrides the British political landscape today. If a week is indeed a long time in politics (apologies for that cliche), he's just lived through one of the most important. Going into the European Summit where he wielded his veto, his position was weak. His backbenchers were restive. He was going to struggle to get a new Treaty through the Commons. His economic plans were falling apart.

Now? Boosted by public approval of his 'strength', 'patriotism', 'decisiveness', as well as by his sure-footed obliteration of his political rivals, his stock rises ever higher. He would probably win a General Election held tomorrow, even in the teeth of the Great Recession.

But wait a moment. Conservative Prime Ministers have a habit of coming back from Europe with claims of diplomatic triumph. It often doesn't last long.

Benjamin Disraeli (above) claimed 'peace with honour' after restraining Turkey without war at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Within two years his government had come apart over a nasty and expensive war in Afghanistan.

Though this column would never be so crass as to compare Mr Cameron to Neville Chamberlain (unlike the Prime Minister's own backbenchers), that Conservative leader's piece of paper turned out to be absolutely worthless after the Munich Conference with Hitler in 1938. He was out of office two years later as well.

John Major came back from Maastrict in 1991 claiming that it was 'game, set and match to Britain' after securing an opt-out from the Euro and the Social Chapter of the new Treaty. He then went on to win the next year's General Election. Within three years he was totally at odds with other European leaders, he was the second most unpopular Prime Minister on record, and had to resign his Party's leadership just to get his MPs to back him.

Triumph? For now. But hold your horses. History says: wait and see.

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