William Hague's EU-turn is a baffling betrayal

William Hague, George Osborne and Nick Clegg

Well, knock me down with a Christmas pudding! William Hague has chosen what is virtually Christmas Eve to tell elderly, Tory and EU-wary readers of the Daily Telegraph that he plans to vote for Britain to stay in the European Union when the great day comes. Many will be baffled, then quite cross.

I’m a bit baffled too, astonished on two grounds.

One reason is that Hague has made hostility to the EU a central pillar of his political career, which famously started when he lectured Margaret Thatcher from the podium at the 1977 Tory conference when the precocious brat was just 16.

He is to blame as much as anyone for the political pickle into which the Tory party has led itself and the country today – a perilous “renegotiation” with 27 EU partners who have more pressing problems of their own, followed by a Brexit referendum in which anything might happen.

The second reason is that, if Billy – I call him Billy as a tease, it’s so obviously unsuited to Hague’s personality – was always planning to make this statement, his timing is rubbish. A U-turn and betrayal in the eyes of many voters, he should not have wasted an announcement that will get swallowed up in the great festive beanfeast many months – how many? No one knows – before the promised vote in 2016 or 2017.

It might have had more impact in the campaign itself.

Perhaps that was the point, a deliberate attempt to bury bad news when few would notice and colleagues were already celebrating by attending Rupert Murdoch’s Christmas party, a grisly event brilliantly dissected by Jane Martinson. I don’t believe it though. Hague is not a coward. He wouldn’t have got as far as he got without conviction and self-belief.

Here’s the BBC’s version of what Hague wrote in Wednesday’s Daily Telegraph, and here’s the Guardian’s. You may – may – be able to penetrate the Torygraph’s paywall and read the original article here.

Rotherham’s Hague is a very clever fellow and he’s written a good pragmatic piece. Sharing his disdain for many of the EU’s follies and failings, as I do, I would scarcely disagree with a word of it.

But Hague has built a career on Euro-scepticism, as many voters who were never starry-eyed Europhiles didn’t.

We voted yes in the 1976 referendum because we saw Europe as battered Britain’s port in a post-imperial storm – so does Hague in his Telegraph article – but not to have bean counters in ugly buildings in the Belgian capital telling us not to use pounds and ounces or to stop excessive landfill.

Such voters, probably the quiet majority of Brits, certainly didn’t believe a European state was either desirable or possible at the western tip of Asia, as events inside the eurozone and Schengen passport-free zone now demonstrate most days. Cooperation is one thing, grandiosity another.

The subsequent journey has often been irritating, sometimes infuriating, but successive Tory and Labour governments – take a bow John Major and Gordon Brown – have kept us clear of the worst of it.

The pragmatist’s judgment of the national interest has always clearly pointed towards staying in rather than embracing the rival fantasies on offer – a revived Commonwealth, becoming the 51st US state, developing into a lean and mean offshore Hong Kong and later Singapore – in the north Atlantic or the new Norway.

Unlike Major, who struggled as PM with a small majority and a large Eurosceptic wing, Hague has never been seen as part of the sensible faction in his own party. As Major’s successor and Tory leader between 1997-2001, he whipped up a spurious “save the pound” campaign – no need: Brown’s “five tests” had already saved it – and made xenophobic speeches about Britain becoming “a foreign land”. Voters were more interested in schools and hospitals, and Hague gained one net seat off Tony Blair.

Worse, as David Cameron’s foreign affairs spokesman and later foreign secretary, young Billy was instrumental in making good Cameron’s leadership campaign pledge to take British Tory MEPs out of the dominant conservative group at the Strasbourg parliament, the European People’s party (EPP). The idea was to form a new, less federalist grouping, which I struggle to remember is called the European Conservative and Reformist (ECR) party.

That manoeuvre, purely for reasons of internal party politicking, had two effects. One was to annoy Britain’s important partners and allies inside the EPP, notably Angela Merkel of Germany, Europe’s most important (only?) political leader on whose goodwill Cameron’s “renegotiation” rests. The second was to cut Whitehall off from the EPP networks, gossip, intelligence and personal ties nurtured over a G&T after work.

These things matter, and Dave has often been blindsided in Brussels as a result. Was it worth it just to make a point to the domestic audience that UK Tories don’t buy the “ever closer union” piety? It’s hard to believe it was.

That said, the new sceptic crew certainly caught a tide. The ECR currently has 71 MEPs, making it the third biggest group at Strasbourg after the EPP and the socialist bloc. It’s not quite true that their initial colleagues were the eastern European equivalent of the Ku Klux Klan, as some Europhiles alleged, but some were a pretty rum lot and the other major player today is Poland’s Law and Justice party.

Law and Justice has just won the Polish elections from the centrists and modernisers – another strand of populist and rural nationalism at work – and is set to cause the EU lots of trouble. Britain too of course, because Warsaw doesn’t want Cameron to get away with curbing migration or benefits.

If Cameron and Hague’s strategy had worked, even at home, they could feel smug as they watched the problems besetting other governments. But it didn’t impress the Tory press, which has been scornful of Cameron’s renegotiation efforts, let alone disaffected voters who will back protest votes for Ukip as long as it doesn’t mean voting for Nigel Farage as an MP.

Appeasement rarely works. Margaret Thatcher could have told her protege that, though she was part of the problem. She dug the Channel tunnel, handy for all those imports and smuggled refugees, signed up to the Single European Act (1986) which allows in all those Poles, gave away the UK veto on an unprecedented scale, and then had the cheek to protest that those European rascals had deceived her!

Hague’s journey seems to have been in the opposite direction, though he’ll deny it. He helped raise expectations that the Tories really would create a new, reformed Europe or quit in disgust if they failed. Most voters don’t rate Europe as a top 10 priority. They only think about it when someone bangs on.

Contrary to Cameron’s wish not to bang on, Hague has been part of of the headbangers’ chorus. It turns out he didn’t mean it. I happen to think he’s right, that the EU is learning hard lessons under British instruction and threat, ones that may – may – make it leaner and meaner, more able to tackle a migration crisis that won’t go away.

It’s slow and boring work, but the alternatives, mostly nostalgic fantasy are worse. Disaffected voters who have missed out on the prosperity enjoyed by others deserved better than this, better than Farage too. You can see why they are cross.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 23rd December 2015 13.32 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010