Monday 19 January 2009

Could Clarke's return change Europe debate in government?

Peter Mandelson has said he thinks it could do so. Foreign Secretary David Miliband told the Fabian Review a year ago that Europe is seen as a tactical weakness for Labour but should be seen as a strategic strength.

Europe is seen as a tactical problem for us but it's a strategic problem for the Tories. Right? Our position on Europe is a strategic advantage for us even if there are tactical challenges that arise and that's because once you accept that climate change, migration, terrorism, are big sources of insecurity, you have to find international ways of dealing with them. You can't tackle climate change if you're a Eurosceptic."

That analysis is much strengthened by the major issues of 2009: notably the financial crisis, the climate change deal, and the opportunities of a new foreign policy engagement with the Obama administration. This could offer the opportunity for a stronger engagement with Europe on issues people care about. Perhaps Clarke's return to the Tory frontbench will encourage the government, by also changing the tactical issue of which side is keener to keep Europe on the backburner. (It could be argued that both frontbenches have largely wanted to do so).

There is a lively discussion thread at ConservativeHome , whose poll found party members recently favoured a Ken Clarke return by 50% to 41%, against the editorial line of the site).

I posted my initial thoughts on Clarke's return there, as follows:

Certainly, the Conservatives will gain from a very well known and strong public communicator. The plan is clearly less prominence for Osborne, and much more for Hague and also Clarke, which suggests a lot of concern at the top about the similarity of Cameron and Osborne's profiles and backgrounds making the Tory party seem much too narrow.

This will also be welcomed by pro-Europeans in all parties. Clarke will be unsackable by Cameron, and it was recently reported that he is aware of that. I am sure the Tory party's instincts will remain strongly Eurosceptic, but Clarke's portfolio will make him something of a balancing voice in the detail of policy and politics.

How much that matters may depend whether the government makes Europe more prominent this year, having been fairly defensive on it. I think they will, but can not be sure. Partly the issues of the crisis, especially ahead of the G20, and also on climate change this year; partly Mandelson's return means a strong pro-EU axis with Miliband. And the Tory sceptics may struggle to convince their leadership to take as strong a line as you want where the government is being pro-EU on an issue the public care about (eg financial system, environment, energy); and where Obama is taking a similar line.

In those circumstances, Clarke would be one more factor in the balance, but it may also come to be a difference of opinion between the grassroots and the leader about how important a eurosceptical challenge to particular developments in some of these areas. It will certainly be interesting!

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