Conservatives in Office
He went to school in Eton, graduated from Oxford with honours degree. He was a special advisor in John Major’s government as well as a chairman of Aston Villa Football Club. He became an MP at 31 and at 39 led the conservative shadow government as the newly-elected leader of the Conservative party. Now David Cameron is the youngest British Prime minister in 198 years and the only one to govern the country with a coalition government after the Second World War.
After elections on 6 May produced a hung Parliament without a clear majority, the conservatives shook hands with the very successful Liberal Democrats lead by one of the most pro-European British political leaders – Nick Clegg.
Clegg’s party won 23% of the vote but got a tiny share of 57 seats in the parliament. Yet, the election debates between the leaders of Labour, Conservatives and Lib-Dems, craftily organized by David Cameron, brought the smallest of the three big parties to the forefront of public attention. Clegg’s ideas gained momentum and for the first time in the last 60 years Britain seemed to have a political debate between not two, but three parties.
Following the narrow win of the conservatives, David Cameron offered Clegg the Holy Grail for Lib-Dems – the promises to hold a referendum on changing the voting system from majoritarian to proportional. This, along with the appointment of the liberal leader for vice-prime minister, surely sealed the coalition agreement with the conservatives. And now UK will have a coalition government – something quite exceptional.
Big Changes Ahead
In fact the British majoritarian election system is what is in the basis of the power-division in the House of Commons – two big parties, one of which almost always having an absolute majority. A change in this system would mean that the smallest regional parties (having just a few seats) may lose their representation, but liberal-democrats on the other hand will be cemented as an equal player and a possible coalition partner for every government from now on. This for me is the biggest news of the week. And if a referendum gives green light to such a reform, it may be the biggest change in British politics since World War Two.
Another important result from the coalition agreement is that anti-EU positions so typical for the Tories, are now significantly toned-down. They have reversed their strong language and phrases such as “UK will never join the euro” are no longer present in their rhetoric.
New Tory Generation
When talking about euro-scepticism in the British Conservatives, one needs to be really careful. The reason – almost all high-ranking officials in the party, and now in the Cabinet are very young ambitions politicians who entered politics during the last years of Margaret Thatcher. This was the time when the Treaty of the European Union (Maastricht Treaty) was discussed and positions in the Conservative party were much polarised.
We can now see the traits of such radicalisation among some top appointment in the new UK government. Take for instance the foreign minister William Hague. He was among the youngest MPs at the beginning of his career and also a very young conservative leader. Following the sweeping victory by labour in 1997 he took the leadership of UK’s conservatives until 2001 when his party lost another dramatic election to Labour.
Both the young Cameron and Hague were part of John Major’s government. The new UK Prime Minister was then a special advisor to the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Finance minister) during the slump of the British pound on Black Wednesday 1992. After his boss was sacked, Cameron changed departments, although kept a respectful position among his colleagues.
The new foreign minister Hague held a higher position in the cabinet being the State secretary of Wales. After his unsuccessful chairmanship of the conservative party, he became a backbencher in the House of Commons before coming to the forefront again upon Cameron’s election as a leader of the Conservatives.
Both Hague and Cameron are young professional politicians with strong ambition and character. They also share a strong anti-European caucus. Now that they are in office, their anti-EU rhetoric will surely be not as strong as before, but one should not be surprise by UK’s reluctance to deepen integration in the EU.
Two prominent examples: Conservatives MEPs in the previous term of the European Parliament split from the biggest right-wing party – the European Peoples Party. Instead they formed another political group with radical right-wingers from Eastern Europe thus tearing the ties with the pro-federalist political family.
Second, the ocnservatives have long been promising a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty if in office. Even as late as last fall Cameron was proposing to hold this referendum if the treaty has not yet entered into force after UK’s elections. Now a group in his party demands this under the pre-text of technical adjustments about the number of MEPs.
EU Foreign Policy ?
Or take another instance- the newly appointed Secretary of Defence Liam Fox has been a staunched atlantics with a very clear point that EU should not develop as a security provider. Instead, on a number of occasions he had stated that NATO has the right of first refusal and the EU should act only when NATO is unable to. But when it comes to capability development (in case NATO fails to act) he remains silent. And when it comes to capabilities (no matter defence or civilian) and information management there are a number of questions where all member states should ask themselves (and possibly answer).
Liam Fox is from the same Tory generation like Hague and Cameron and opposes European defence integration as well as political integration. Having such a strongly-opinionated politician deciding on issues of high politics would mean that The Common Foreign and Security policy, and especially the Common Security and Defence Policy of the EU will be a big thorn in the eyes of the conservative government.
EU Policy Reversal?
For the time being though it seems that the Tories are ready to take the challenge and work with Europe. At least this is what the coalition agreement with the Liberals reads. The newly-minted government claims it “will be a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners.” Interpretations, of course, vary – it may mean that EU is not considered effective, Tories will take course to revise policies or even reverse integration. Yet this may cost them the support of the Liberal-Democrats, whose leader’s formative years in politics were spent in Brussels.
Now the coalition agreement says that the policy will be to “examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences.” This is a huge step back from Conservative’s promise to repatriate EU laws in social, employment and criminal justice areas. The newly-set up European External Action Service has not yet come in the spotlight, but I feel liberals will have a great role to play there in making the Tories hold the horses.
Dave the Chameleon*
The key question here is whether Cameron will manage to divert from his personal lukewarm attitude toward the EU, and more importantly, whether he would be able to oppose the radical anti-EU wing in his party. Same for his foreign minister Hague, who so far has a proven Euro sceptic record. (A day after his appointment he hurried across the Atlantic to confirm the special relations with the US. Let’s see his first talks with EU leaders, maybe at the next scheduled GAERC?) The EU policy of the coalition government may well be a hot potato and could easily incite a row between the partners, given their opposing views. If this happens, Cameron will be in a position to call for new general elections in order to get absolute majority and then unfold a full-blown conservative policy.
Learning from the past?
Whether this would happen of course is too early even to think of, but changes in British politics already seem big. Reforming the voting system and the Tories’ attitude toward the EU will be big morsels for the young Clegg and his 57 MPs. The skills of David Cameron are not to be underrated either. When Margareth Tatcher stepped down in 1990 after 11 years in office, she had reformed policies and positions about individualism and free market not only in her party, but also in the main opponents as well. When Labour took office, much of the traditional socialist policies were scrapped and the power of market embraced. Will Cameron be able to do something similar with his opponents? Or will he be a vehicle for a progressive trend that would change British politics for good? After all, he got some skill.
* Name coined by Labour election campaign