Political participants and commentators from all parts of the political spectrum have been left astounded by the events of the past week. Who can really understand the implications of the new coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats?
Think about it. Arch eurosceptics like Iain Duncan Smith and Liam Fox are sitting down in Cabinet next to their polar opposites, Nick Clegg and Chris Huhne. What kind of a policy on Europe can satisfy all of them?
The coalition agreement negotiated over several days skates over the differences, alighting instead on the areas of agreement. No new treaty, no joining the euro. The Tory ambition to unpick previous EU policy on social and employment policy, criminal justice, and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, goes unmentioned. In practice, it would probably be impossible to implement, and there is no political majority in the UK for it in any case. Better to focus on issues where something useful might be done, like the Working Time Directive. (Where is the single market need or cross-border implication of a policy on the hours worked in UK hospitals?)
The appointment of Europe minister is a good example of how the new government is hoping to work. Europe being such a potentially divisive issue between the parties, it was necessary to find someone who would not polarise matters even further. It would not have been realistic to suppose that a Liberal Democrat federalist could have held the job (however satisfying that prospect might have been), and it was important that a Tory eurosceptic did not get the job either. David Lidington, who supported John Major over the Maastricht Treaty, was from that perspective a good choice. The previous Conservative shadow Europe minister, Mark Francois, would not have been. He was far too associated with the previous Tory opposition to the Lisbon treaty and the institutional philosophy that went with it, an opposition that is no longer the policy of the government.
This decision is not popular among the anti-European wing of the Conservative party. Bill Cash was quoted in one of the papers as calling the decision “ridiculous”. Someone else – identified only as a Right-winger – said: “It had better be Francois or there is going to be trouble.”
David Cameron himself observed that “The doubters won’t be proved wrong by words, promises or signed documents but by the actual evidence of a government governing effectively.”
The difficulty he is going to face is that the different sides in the debate over Europe have very different understandings of what is meant by “effective”. The pro-European side of his government is going to have to assert itself to ensure that the eurosceptic definition of that word is not the one that comes into general circulation, bearing in mind that there are plenty of newspapers eager to help it on its way.
Europe is not the biggest issue the new government thinks it is confronted with, and it is understandable if it is one on which the Liberal Democrats are more willing to make concessions. Nevertheless, one can imagine what the anti-Europeans are thinking.
This is in many ways a recreation of John Major’s government of the 1990s, with its pro-European and anti-European wings. The anti-Europeans won the fight that ensued between those two sides then, and either destroyed or drove out their pro-European opponents. They must be dismayed to realise that they are going to have to do the same thing all over again, but I don’t think anyone should be in any doubt that that is what they are going to try to do.