LONDON (AP) — He lost abroad, in convincing fashion. But unlike England’s humiliated World Cup squad, British Prime Minister David Cameron has reasonable hopes of turning his overseas defeat into victory at home.
His campaign to derail the choice of Jean-Claude Juncker as the next president of the powerful European Commission went down in flames, but Cameron’s harsh rhetoric about the Brussels clique dominating European Union affairs may serve him well in Britain’s general election next May.
Bernard Ingham, former press secretary to conservative icon Margaret Thatcher, said Saturday that Cameron’s lopsided defeat — only Hungary sided with the Brits in the stillborn anti-Juncker movement — will be seen by many as a shrewd opening salvo in his general election battle.
“I think he’s in a stronger position than he was yesterday,” said Ingham, no fan of further European integration. “He stood up for a principle. Yes, he was defeated, fine, but the rest of Europe has completely ignored the uneasy feeling the electorate has about Europe, as shown in the last election.”
He was referring to last month’s European Parliament elections, which saw anti-EU parties make gains in several countries and score particularly well in Britain, where the UK Independence Party (UKIP) topped the polls with its unequivocal “Let’s get out of the EU today” message.
Ingham said Cameron’s outspoken opposition to Juncker has made it clear he will not take a business as usual approach.
However, it remains to be seen whether the prime minister will take the fateful step of advocating British withdrawal from the EU even as he moves closer to the anti-EU sentiments held by many in his own party and most UKIP supporters.
The British press treated Cameron’s setback in Brussels as the clearest sign yet that Britain is on a path that will take it out of the EU, a prospect that seemed far-fetched just five years ago. Cameron has promised an “in or out” referendum if he wins re-election and says the choice of Juncker will make it more difficult for him to win the reforms he needs to recommend Britain stay within the 28-nation bloc.
He has not specified exactly what concessions he seeks from Europe, talking instead in broad terms about giving more power back to national parliaments. Critics say his tactics in the doomed battle against Juncker have left Britain more isolated than ever, without the allies it will need to win significant concessions.
The Times of London front-page headline said “Britain nears EU exit” and the Independent said “Cameron crushed — and UK edges closer to an EU exit.”
The Daily Telegraph, a staunch Conservative Party backer, said in its lead editorial that Cameron had been correct to view the selection of Juncker as a threat to British interests.
“If Europe wanted to drive Britain away, then the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker was the way to go about it,” the newspaper said.
UKIP’s Elizabeth Jones, who heads the party’s Southwark branch, said Cameron’s political strategy seems sound even though he suffered an embarrassing defeat. It allows him to portray himself as standing up to Brussels even though he stops well short of advocating an end to Britain’s membership.
“This is a good measure for him as a professional politician,” she said. “He knows full well there can be no renegotiation of EU treaties, but now he can backpedal and say he did his best and did try to stand up to Juncker. But I think he’s paddling water — I don’t think he has a European strategy.”
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