Bernard Ingham: When standing alone is a sign you are in the right

THE question was always the same in Brussels and other European capitals as well as in Melbourne, New Delhi, Nassau, Vancouver and Kuala Lumpur.

“What is it like always to be in a minority of one?” they used to ask 
me. Margaret Thatcher was, of course, as at odds with the Commonwealth over South African sanctions as she was with the Europe she inherited in 1979. I invariably replied with a smile: “It is wonderful when you are in the right – as we are.”

So, my advice to David Cameron is to lie back and enjoy the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Nothing has done more to underline the need for EU reform than setting this arch-federalist toper to run the show. Cameron is in the right. It will do him no harm politically in the UK.

Ed Miliband’s claim that Cameron has been humiliated by Juncker’s elevation serves only to highlight the Labour leader’s naivete about contemporary Europe. No other likely candidate would have made much difference.

This is because of the nature of the unelected Commission.

It is in the business of accumulating central power and the more it can 
build ever closer union towards a United States of Europe the more powerful it becomes.

The 26-2 vote in favour of Juncker also demonstrated that the enthusiasm of European politicians for the great European project is as great as their contempt for the electors who clearly signalled in the European elections that they think something is wrong.

Not much scope for pro-reform alliances there, Ed.

All this, the crippling straightjacket of the single currency and the EU’s unwillingness to punch its weight in the world confirms Cameron’s judgment that it is crying out for reform.

It has been for years. But we should not assume that it is capable of changing its ways and ambitions.

This is where Cameron potentially runs into trouble. His entire emphasis is on renegotiating the UK’s membership so that he can campaign for Britain to remain in the EU in a 2017 referendum.

But there is not a snowball’s chance in Hades of the EU delivering anything that Cameron would be able to sell to the British public as justification for remaining a member.

If you learn anything from history, it is that we are now in for three years of manoeuvring with every “concession” dressed up in fraudulent finery.

At the same time, Britain’s Europhiles will try to freeze our blood with tales of economic disaster if we leave. Stand by for near burial under a load of utter bunkum.

With all this codswallop polluting the atmosphere it will be nigh on impossible for Cameron to present himself as a man of principle unless he does two things.

First, he needs to be specific about what he wants out of the negotiation – what powers does he want repatriated and what is he prepared to leave 
with Brussels; how does he propose to ensure we can govern ourselves in identified fields; what is the very minimum change he thinks is necessary for the national interest; and how far does he want to go in changing our relationship to that of a trading as distinct from political partner?

Second, he must acknowledge now that, much though he would like to remain in a reformed Europe, he would in the end be prepared to recommend our exit if the EU did not deliver.

Otherwise, his fellow political leaders, Eurocrats and Britain’s own Europhiles will toy with him.

Of course, there will be talk of perfidious Albion, which becomes something of a joke when you consider the unreliability of European allies in any enterprise.

The United States, with its chronically limited understanding of these matters, will have regular hissy fits about the alliance.

But Britain is not seeking to wreck anything. Indeed, it could be argued that unless the EU does change it will wreck itself.

What Cameron is seeking is a Europe that works better certainly for Britons but also for all the people across 28 nation-states. It is an honourable objective.

None of this will matter a damn if Cameron fails to win next year’s general election outright. But he is in a stronger position to do that this week because of his handiwork last week in Ypres.

Standing alone for Britain has always been “wonderful” if you are in the right.

Our Prime Minister will find it even more wonderful if he makes it clear he will, if necessary, lead Britain out of this decadent mess.