The Number 10 machine is in overdrive for David Cameron's great EU expedition

Written by Jon Craig on 2 February 2016 in Opinion
Opinion
Could the prime minister’s European renegotiation be more about spin than substance?

On the Sky News Murnaghan programme on Sunday, the eurosceptic Tory MP Steve Baker made a slightly unusual observation about David Cameron’s EU renegotiation.

"The row that we are currently seeing is a synthetic one which we always expected the comms team to manufacture," the Wycombe MP, who co-chairs Conservatives for Britain, told Dermot.

The comms team? I suspect the rather flinty Mr Baker doesn’t like comms teams. He strikes me as a very conservative Conservative who’s against most things.

A former RAF engineer, he’s anti-EU, obviously. He was opposed to bank bail-outs, he’s against HS2 – even though it’s not planned to go through his Buckinghamshire constituency – and he voted against gay marriage.

But to be fair to Mr Baker, he does tell it like it is. Asked by Dermot about Tory infighting among the "out" campaign, he candidly admitted there had been "some severe disagreements” and “a considerable number of distractions". You can say that again, Steve.

But does Mr Baker have a point about the Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation being more about spin than substance? Based on the evidence so far, yes, of course. There has been plenty of savvy spinning, even though it hasn’t all gone according to plan.

And come the referendum, which now looks like it will be on June 23, I wouldn’t bet on the equally savvy voters falling for spin!

To the delight of the Prime Minister, no doubt, Donald Tusk’s “new settlement”, includes most of Mr Cameron’s demands, including the so-called  "emergency brake" on benefits for migrant workers and the “red card” giving national parliaments more power to block EU laws.

Mr Cameron has also won his demand that the proposals should come into force immediately after the UK votes in favour of remaining in the EU.

"Draft EU renegotiation document shows real progress in all four areas where UK needs change but there's more work to do," the Prime Minister tweeted, no doubt relieved.

I’m not sure the PM will have been best pleased with Mr Tusk’s tweet, however, which said rather cheekily: "To be, or not to be together, that is the question." Not a man to be spun, Mr Tusk, I don’t think.

Eurosceptics like Mr Baker will no doubt seize on the proposal in the text that migrant workers should be allowed to have benefits phased in over the four-year period, rather than facing an outright ban.

Once it became clear the "new settlement" was in the bag, in a piece of meticulous choreography No. 10 arranged for Mr Cameron to welcome the Tusk blueprint in a speech at the shiny Siemens Rail Automation HQ in Chippenham.

Some of the shine was taken off that choreography, however, when pesky Jeremy Corbyn – and even more pesky John Bercow – agreed while the PM was on his way to Wiltshire that the Labour leader should be allowed to ask an urgent question in the Commons. Oh dear! That wasn’t in the plan! 

So, just like George Osborne sent his junior minister David Gauke into the Commons to answer tricky questions on Google and tax last week, the hapless David Lidington, Minister for Europe, was despatched to fave the wrath of Euro-sceptic MPs.

On Sunday evening, there was more evidence of attempts at choreography when I was in Downing Street to cover the PM’s dinner date diplomacy with Mr Tusk, the former Polish Prime Minister. That didn’t go entirely to plan, either, again possibly because of Mr Tusk’s reluctance to be part of the choreography.

When he arrived in the street at 6.30pm, the plucky Pole surprised everyone, including Mr Cameron, by arriving at the Horseguards Parade end of Downing Street and emerging on foot from the iron gates by the Foreign Office, instead of being driven in a limo from the Whitehall end, which most official visitors are.

When the three TV correspondents on duty, Carole Walker of the BBC, ITV’s Romilly Weeks and I, shouted to Mr Tusk asking if there would be a deal, he replied: “I hope so.” Not just once, but two or three times.

Mr Cameron, standing on the front step of No. 10, then gripped Mr Tusk’s hand so tightly he couldn’t avoid a photocall in front of the door. Then a TV camera went inside for more pictures: another handshake and a cosy fireside chat in front of a coffee table with bowls of crisps, cashew nuts and olives. Nice.

When it suits the Prime Minister not to pose for pictures with a visitor, because it’s a meeting he’d prefer didn’t get much coverage, he doesn’t. No handshake outside the door of No. 10 and no cameras inside. But he – or his comms team! – clearly wanted us to talk up the Tusk talks.

But after what we were told was a dinner of smoked salmon, roast fillet of beef and vegetables and pear and apple crumble (very British!), Mr Tusk took us – those waiting outside No. 10, that is – by surprise again.

It was shortly after 8.10pm when he and part of his large entourage suddenly came out of No. 10, barely an hour and 40 minutes after he arrived, and started walking briskly back towards the Horseguards Parade end of the street. Had he left before the pear and apple crumble? And who had crumbled? Guest or host?

By this time I was the only correspondent in Downing Street and I shouted after Mr Tusk: “Have you done a deal?” “No deal,” was the brusque Tusk reply.

When Mr Tusk tweeted on the outcome of the talks, the word “yet” had been added to “no deal”. I immediately wondered if No. 10 – the “comms team”, as Steve Baker would call it – had urged him to add it after I had reported his abrupt departure and rather terse response to me in the street.

Certainly, both on Sunday night and throughout this week, No. 10 has not only wanted to portray the negotiations as tough and build up to a triumphant climax but also been selective in its briefing on the Tusk talks and negotiations in Brussels.

So, on Sunday, the “emergency brake” on restricting benefits to EU migrants for four years was hailed as “a significant breakthrough”. Then on Monday it was the “red card” system to allow Britain to join up with other EU countries to block unwanted Brussels directives and “strengthen the powers of Westminster”, according to No. 10.

Spin? The comms team in action? Certainly. Like the so-called “Sherpas” in Brussels honing and finessing the Tusk text, the PM’s comms chief Craig Oliver has been working round the clock inside Downing Street.

Mr Cameron’s critics in the media have long dismissed the Prime Minister as a spin doctor and a salesman. It has always amused me that some of the journalists most hostile to him are those who dealt with him when he was head of, yes, comms, for Carlton TV.

But besides spin, Mr Cameron also deploys luck to his advantage. He was lucky to have a mentor in Michael Howard who timed the Tory leadership contest to his advantage in 2005. He was lucky to find a willing Coalition partner in Nick Clegg in 2010. He was lucky when Labour chose Ed Miliband as leader and so he faced a weak opponent in the 2015 general election. He was lucky that Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown did the heavy lifting in the Scottish referendum.

And now he is lucky that, so far, his opponents in the EU referendum campaign are in disarray. As a former Fleet Street editor of mine used to say, it’s “one for the aficionados”, but the feuding between Vote Leave and Leave EU has become a soap opera as gritty as the battles between the Fowlers and the Mitchells in EastEnders.

Does anybody – apart from a few geeky political correspondents and the most nerdy of political anoraks – care that Dominic Cummings, campaign director of Vote Leave, and Matthew Elliott, its chief executive, have fought off a bid to oust them by the Tory MP Bernard Jenkin. Yawn! Messrs Cummings and Elliott, I’m afraid, are not even household names in their own home.

Those who do care will argue that it matters because under the referendum rules the Remain and Leave campaigns must have a designated “lead campaigner” which will then trouser up to £7 million of taxpayers’ money from the Electoral Commission to spend on leaflets posted to voters’ homes.

While the outers squabble, the pro-Europe Britain Stronger in Europe will get the cash because it is the only “stay” campaign. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage says Vote Leave is soft on Brexit because some in its camp support a second referendum. Please, no!

Some people will argue that Mr Cameron is also lucky because none of his Cabinet big beasts has so far broken ranks to join the outers, as Tony Benn, Michael Foot, Barbara Castle and Peter Shore did in Harold Wilson’s referendum in 1975.

Lucky? That’s more like good party management, so far, by the current Prime Minister.

It was significant, I thought, that the first senior Cabinet minister to turn up in Downing Street on Sunday evening for pre-talks talks - or as No 10 put it “to discuss the latest state of play on the EU renegotiation” – was Theresa May, the Euro-sceptic leaning Home Secretary.

Until Sunday she hadn’t previously had a formal role in the Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation. Yet Sunday’s was the most important meeting, the moment of truth. Is she really going to lead the Leave campaign now? It’s looking less likely.

Eurosceptics like Steve Baker will dismiss Donald Tusk’s proposed “new settlement” as trivial and inconsequential. But while the Tory outers continuing feuding, the PM and his “comms team” will continue to be lucky as well as savvy.

 

 

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