Unsurprisingly, the euro crisis may be ravaging the careers of many politicians, but few would have expected David Cameron to be among them. After all, the British Prime Minister leads a country that has stayed out of the euro zone, thanks to the determination of his predecessor Gordon Brown. He should have been gloating from the sidelines.
Instead, Mr. Cameron is in the midst of a potentially destructive political meltdown within his Tory party, whose more right-wing backbenchers are adamantly opposed to Britain’s membership in the 27-member European Union.
On Monday, Mr. Cameron is facing a private members’ bill, proposed by one of his Tory backbenchers, that would ask the government to hold a referendum asking citizens if they want Britain to withdraw from Europe.
This, the Prime Minister knows, would be disastrous: A poll this week shows that almost half of Britons would vote positively in such a vote (the EU has never been popular in Britain).
And while that may sound like a democratically desirable move (the right-wing euroskeptics probably outnumber the right-wing EU fans), Mr. Cameron knows that its economic consequences would devastate an already floundering British economy and fiscal balance.
After all, the EU is Britain’s largest trading partner by an extremely wide margin. And the Brussels bloc – however much Britons dislike its propensity for regulating things like the curvature of bananas and the quantities of beer to be served at pubs – is key to that economy, especially because a withdrawal would infuriate countries like Germany and cause them to break off trading ties.
So Mr. Cameron, speaking to MPs on Monday, walked a delicate line: Telling them he supported their political views on Brussels, he urged them to vote against it in order to preserve their larger economic interests.
“I share the yearning for fundamental reform and I am determined to deliver it,” he told MPs. “Like you, I want fundamental reform, like you I want to refashion our membership of the EU so that it better serves our nation's interests. The time for reform is coming, that is the prize, let us not be distracted from seizing it.”
But he added: “Of course we want to export more to China, Brazil, Turkey, the fast growing countries. But today, 50 per cent of our trade is with EU countries so it’s in our interest to keep those markets open and further open them up.”
The vote probably won’t pass. Mr. Cameron was forced to take the rather extreme measure of imposing a three-line whip, and enlisting the support of his arch-enemies the Labour Party, on a non-binding private-members’ bill.
But the fact that he was required to do this, many commentators noted, is an indication that he has become dangerously at odds with the rank-and-file of his party. This will likely only get worse: This weekend, EU leaders appear to have decided that a new treaty will be required in order to build the euro zone-wide institutions necessary to keep the currency working. And the Tories have vowed never to renegotiate the treaty.
Through the first year of his liberal-conservative coalition government, Mr. Cameron appeared to have done a strikingly good job of keeping the more extreme isolationist branch of his Conservative caucus under control. Now, it seems, the lid has popped out of the box, and the Little Englanders are on the loose.
Once a man who appeared brilliant at keeping an awkward coalition together, British commentators are now saying he is “ at war with his party.” It must be humiliating, having one’s image undone by a currency that isn’t even yours.