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How Cameron’s first capitulation in 2005 set us on the path towards Brexit

MANY of the issues the Brexiteers now face are because they are attempting to deliver the impossible. Voters were promised things that were not possible – so how is it that the Tories ended up supporting a referendum with no clear vision for the future in either a Remain or Leave scenario? Having got here, why is that those in charge of the party seem to be so distant from reality and those amongst them so spineless?

The answer lies in a long and illustrious history of the Tory leadership appeasing the hard Brexiteers.

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First published in The National, 01 November 2017.

After the party divisions of the 1990s, instead of engaging in arguments, too many Tories simply went along with the show on the basis that if they didn’t engage then the party wasn’t divided on Europe. This worked for a while but now the folly of the policy is revealed in full. Rational voices have been shut out and sidelined while the irrational have taken over their party.

In 2005 David Cameron rose to power in the Tory party by fighting off challenges from David Davis and Liam Fox, but during his election campaign he had a problem. Both opponents were well-known Euro-sceptics, and so when it became a two-horse race between him and Davis, he needed to out-Brexit the man who would go on to become the Brexit Secretary of State.

He did this through offering one of the few concrete commitments of his campaign: he promised to remove the Tories from the European Peoples Party (EPP).

The EPP is a centre-right, pan-European group of political parties that sits in the European Parliament and contains (amongst numerous others) German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party. Cameron’s promise stripped both him and the Conservatives of a role at the centre of European politics. Indeed, it was so pointless that even David Davis at the time remarked that “it made no sense to cut all political links with fellow conservatives.”

Now, I hear more than a few snorts in the back about the importance of this but even within the narrow confines of how Brussels works this was significant and it also illustrates how again and again Cameron “gave in” on issues he did not understand or care about.

Here is an example right now of what that decision means. The Brexit Strategy Group of the European Parliament plays a key role in the negotiations through regular meetings with Michel Barnier.

It provides recommendations to the rest of the Parliament and by virtue of its membership represents a majority of MEPs. As members of the Greens-European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) the SNP is represented in that room, as are Labour and the LibDems in other groups.

The Parliament will have a final binding vote on the deal struck – if one is struck! – with the UK, yet the Tories are nowhere and have no voice because Cameron left the EPP. Forget standing up for Scotland, they can’t even speak up for the UK!

Cameron’s decision has implications far beyond this. His seemingly thoughtless decision meant that he threw away the opportunity for a good working relationship with other European leaders. They in turn didn’t get to know him since he couldn’t negotiate at the fringes of the EPP gatherings, and neither could they caution him over his reckless decisions. In 2015, when Angela Merkel and nine other heads of government met at the EPP congress, Cameron was not there to put forward his vision of the UK in the EU. Indeed, in the process of leaving he not only cut himself out of the loop but also antagonised European leaders by setting up a new group – the ECR – containing a variety of hard right-wing politicians, including Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). It has to be said that Cameron opposed the AfD’s membership but the damage was done.

Individually, this may not mean much, but cumulatively it was significant. Of far greater importance was that it set a precedent for his pandering to the Brexiteers, as he would again when in 2013 he promised a referendum on EU membership, a decision that has had fateful, messy consequences.

Caroline Jackson, a Tory MEP at the time, commented that the reason Cameron left the EPP was “because the party is run by people whose ultimate agenda is to pull Britain out of the EU”. It seems hard to disagree.

Cameron cut himself out of European affairs and pandered to his own backbenches. Leave got away with the lies because nobody in the leadership of the Tory party stood up to them. Cameron empowered the Brexiteers and then in June 2016 handed them the keys to kingdom.

Now we are all trapped in the nightmare of watching reality collide with their delusions. We must continue to make the case for Europe and never make Cameron’s mistake of pandering to the Tory Brexiteers because if we can learn one thing from his disastrous leadership it is that pandering doesn’t work.