Well it’s official, the UK has ratified the Lisbon treaty. Brussels can breathe a big sigh of relief. It was a fiery scene in the commons yesterday as they debated the ratification. Tory leader David Cameron was doing his best to sufficiently rattle his saber to appease the tabloid press.
But Cameron’s predictable bravado was hardly the most interesting thing about the proceedings. Rather it was the behavior of the other two party leaders, Labour’s Gordon Brown and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg.
As The Times’ Peter Riddell pointed out in his column today, Gordon Brown seems to have finally “seen the light” when it comes to Europe. That, or he’s adopted a fundamental (and perhaps politically necessary) shift in strategy on how to deal with the European question. During the commons debate yesterday Brown was passionate and unequivocal in not only his defense of the treaty but in the wider benefit of membership in the EU. At a time when few politicians have had the courage to present the case for Europe to the British public, Brown seems to have suddenly shifted his tone. Having always been reticent to talk about Europe before, he suddenly was emphasizing the need for Britain to take a leading role in the union in order to achieve prosperity in security in a globalised world.
In fact much of the debate in the Commons seemed to be about the concept of ‘courage.’ All along, the conservatives have sought to paint Brown as a ‘coward’ who doesn’t have the courage to put the reform treaty to a public referendum as the conservatives have demanded. Indeed Cameron probably expected yesterday to be a cakewalk, with him getting the chance to browbeat the prime minister while Brown sheepishly defended an unpopular position. Yet Brown came out fighting, and in the end was able to label Cameron himself as a coward for going along with the populist cries against Europe even though it could put the UK’s very membership in the EU at risk. Brown’s line that Cameron was ‘appeasing Tory Eurosceptics’ rather than standing up to them and driving Britain into “the margins of Europe” were picked up by virtually every newscast last night. Seeing the coverage, it wasn’t hard to see that the debate hadn’t gone as planned for the Tories.
In fact even the Eurosceptic British media had to acknowledge that Brown had put on an impassioned show. Though the tabloids the next morning had the expected cries about Democracy in peril, few had great cheers for the Tory performance in the debate. The fact that the conservatives were still pretending after the vote (which passed the commons by a wide margin) that the battle was not yet lost seemed almost absurd, and seemed to lend credence to the criticism that the Tory position was more about populist grandstanding than it was about a rational debate. In his column, Riddell predicts that this is the beginning of an abrupt shift in focus by Labour that will attempt to make Europe a winning issue for the party by the time of the next election rather than a liability, painting the Tories as backwards-looking and nationalistic.
The machinations of the Liberal Democrats during this whole debate were equally as interesting. In a controversial move party leader Nick Clegg directed his flock to abstain from the treaty vote, even though it still would have passed if he had allowed them to vote – although by a much smaller margin. The move caused three senior spokesmen to resign, and resulted in much grumbling by Lib Dem backbenchers. But in the end Clegg seems to have come out of the controversy unscathed, having stuck to his guns and let the ratification pass by a large enough margin to give it legitimacy. Judging by his speech at the Welsh Liberal Democrat spring conference last month, in which he spelled out a vision of his party as ‘internationalists,’ he too seems to have a more pro-European agenda of late.
Time will tell if this newfound Euro-confidence was merely a necessity to justify the refusal of a referendum or a significant change in overall strategy. But the important thing is that it succeeded in giving the vote a sizable passing, and managed to trump the Tories on a day that they likely thought would be a glorious one for them.