Talking about Europe hasn’t got any easier for David Cameron. One after another, his backbenchers rose during prime minister’s questions to demand that he elaborate his position on fiscal union in the eurozone, and explain his intentions for the repatriation of powers during treaty change discussions.
Over and over again, he declined to provide any details, instead choosing to make vague assertions about how “we will insist on some safeguards for Britain” and blame the Labour government for “giving away power after power”. Already touchy about their party leadership’s attitude to Europe, backbenchers are likely to interpret his evasion as a lack of will to force the repatriation of powers as an expectation management strategy by the prime minister – preparing the groundwork for disappointing news from Friday’s summit.
The prime minister’s struggle to articulate what he means by “defend British interests in Europe” left Ed Miliband with a substantial opportunity. For once, he didn’t miss the open goal. His opening question on which powers Cameron would choose to repatriate left the PM floundering among vague generalisations. Visibly rattled, Cameron then declared that he led the “one party, one government that defends Britain’s interests” – when under pressure, the realities of coalition government with a pro-Europe party seem to escape him momentarily.
However, Miliband didn’t manage to keep up this momentum. Questions on the economy and Cameron’s problem appealing to women voters descended into predictably messy exchanges, with Miliband repeatedly declaring “the figures are there” and Cameron laying the blame on Labour. Ed’s soundbites, too, need some work. A joke about ‘handbagging’ and ‘handwringing’ over Europe fell resoundingly flat, allowing Cameron to regain his stride somewhat.
The performance of the day most definitely came from Father of the House Sir Peter Tapsell, who asked a rambling question that included the phrase “Can the Germans be persuaded to study the reason for the Boston Tea Party?” Who knows? Perhaps the prime minister can run that one past Angela Merkel at their next meeting.