The Week in Politics: David Cameron and the Spiders from Brussels
Like a rock legend obliged to reaffirm his greatness every few years or so with the release of a new album, so David Cameron is obliged, every so often, to acknowledge events and the passing of time by making a speech holding his party together on Europe. It's a chore, but this old hand is getting very good at it.
I was there. Not in Bloomberg in 2013, but St Stephen's Club in 2009, the last time when the then leader of the opposition reshaped his party's approach to the European Union. Then it was the ratification of the Lisbon treaty which forced Cameron to tweak his party's policy, abandoning Tory plans to give the British people a referendum. He showed himself to be a master of obfuscation, keeping the eurosceptics and Europhiles in his party happy ahead of the coming general election campaign. Fast forward four years or so, to Wednesday morning in Bloomberg's offices. I was there again, pestering ambassadors and business chiefs for their views, as Cameron did it again. This time he was promising a referendum once more. What goes around, it seems, comes around.
There was so much hype leading up to Cameron's BIG Europe speech it seemed inevitable the end result would be an anti-climax. Instead the prime minister surprised us all by committing so firmly to a line he'd dodged in the weeks leading up to the main event. Staring straight into the camera, he told Britain and his party: "It will be an in-or-out referendum." This was a big deal, after all.
It was a moment, in his own words, of "heresy". The PM appeared to have outraged European leaders and won the plaudits of his party. That the Tories were now well and truly united over Europe, for the first time in many years, was obvious to anyone watching prime minister's questions. The cheering was incessant, and all the more so as Labour's response to the speech appeared a little muddy. A closer look, however, revealed the strategic decisions Cameron had taken. He has united his party, but only until 2017. As we started realising as soon as the prime minister had finished his speech, the situation rested on Cameron's great gamble: his ability to secure meaningful concessions from EU leaders in the grand renegotiation to come. Worst of all, the likelihood is the eventual deal won't be enough to stop chunks of his party campaigning against him in the referendum. Could be painful.
Such party political headaches will have been of less concern to most people than the news of the UK economy's contraction in the final three months of 2012. All week jittery stories appeared as the GDP figure announcement approached; most notably, with the high and mighty jetting off to Davos, was the IMF's suggestion that even they are no longer really keen on George Osborne's austerity agenda. By the time the bad news arrived, outlook dials were all firmly stuck on 'bleak'.
This was also a week of significant developments in foreign affairs beyond Europe's borders. Across the Atlantic, Barack Obama was inaugurated for four more years as leader of the free world. This really matters to Britain, and we outlined ten reasons why that's the case at the start of the week. The violent end to the Algeria hostage crisis over the weekend preoccupied grim MPs at the beginning of the week, as Britain's politicians mulled over the emergence of a grave new terrorism threat.
Our elected representatives were just as worked up the day after, when the royal succession bill was rushed through the Commons. Jacob Rees-Mogg and co were so upset at the pace with which this major shift was taking place they almost quivered with indignation. Always a refreshing sight.