The talks are proving difficult because the two parties are so far apart on major issues, and it’s going to be difficult for them to come to some kind of an understanding on how they can govern together. One of those major issues is Britain’s relationship with the EU, and hopes of agreement in this area were dramatically undermined last night when a top-secret letter from shadow foreign secretary William Hague to David Cameron was leaked.
The letter, written last week, assumed a Tory victory on Thursday and outlined a plan for a brash and aggressive introduction of the new UK government to EU foreign ministers at a meeting today. According to the document, Hague planned to tell the foreign ministers "the British relationship with the EU has changed with our election". Hague then planned to tell the ministers there would be no further integration of the UK with the rest of Europe. Instead, the UK would be clawing back national powers over criminal justice, social policy and employment policy during the first term of the Tory government. He also planned to tell the foreign ministers bluntly "we will never join the euro".
Of course it’s been known for some time that the Tories plan to further disengage the UK from the EU and demand more opt-outs and exceptions. But in the past two months, as their poll numbers began to slide amidst fears from the public that the Tories were too hard-line conservative, Hague and Cameron had changed their rhetoric on Europe and shifted to a softer approach. During the campaign they were keen to play down the upcoming dramatic conflict with Brussels, possibly because it would have left them open to criticism that they can’t possibly get what they’re planning to ask for, so they would be antagonising Britain’s European allies for no purpose.
The leaked memo is a reminder of the Tories’ plans for “going to war” with Brussels, so it will cause an added layer of difficulty for the pro-European Nick Clegg, who is deciding whether to ally his Liberal Democrat party with the Tories to form a government.
Clegg has been fiercely critical of the Conservative’s posturing toward Europe and has been at pains to point out that the Tory EU policy would leave Britain isolated and weak. The harsh words used in this leaked document will not go over well with the rank-and-file members of the Liberal Democrat party, who would have to approve any agreement Clegg reaches with Cameron.
Needless to say, Brussels is not excited about the Conservatives coming to power in the UK. In fact there is real dread here over what that will mean for EU unity. The idea that the Tory government might be in coalition with the pro-Europe Lib Dems is a consolation to many here, who think that the Lib Dems will force the Conservatives to moderate their plans for EU confrontation. But given that it is an impossibility that the Tories would ever agree to put a Liberal Democrat in the foreign minister position, how much control will the Lib Dems really have over how a Tory government behaves toward the EU? And might the Lib Dems just look the other way and hold their noses as the Tories make war on Brussels in exchange for concessions on other issues they care about such as electoral and tax reform?
It’s a very real reminder of the policy differences between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats. And it is just the sort of thing that will enrage many Lib Dem voters if the party does end up allying with the Tories. But don't try explaining that to the Rupert Murdoch-owned media. They are in an absolute panic that David Cameron might not become prime minister because that's the horse they've backed, and they've spent the last three years making an enemy of Labour and just flat out ignoring the Lib Dems. The refrain from them is that Lib Dems just need to shut up and ally with the Conservatives, because that's what the people voted for. Tensions are running high, as evidenced in this clip of a Sky News reporter becoming so upset during an itnerview with former Labour PR man Alastair Campbell that he starts sputtering and screaming at him. He literally looks like he's going to explode. But such is the fear inside the Murdoch media empire right now. As hard as they've worked to secure a Tory victory, it could all fall apart in the next 48 hours.