Wednesday, 24 March 2010

The tiger in the kitchen

Much of the comment on David Cameron's car crash of an interview with Gay Times on Channel Four last night has focused on his confusion over gay equality.

The Conservative record on gay rights in the 80s and 90s was indeed truly abysmal. I don't doubt David Cameron's genuineness in trying to move his party into at least the twentieth century on this issue, and in repudiating his party's actions over Section 28, but equally I'm sure it's an uphill struggle in many cases.

But what stood out from the interview for me was his confusion, not over gay issues, but over something that remains far more of a problem for the Conservatives - Europe. It's not so much an 'elephant in the room' for the Tories, as a tiger in their kitchen, temporarily if flimsily confined but lurking ready to pounce if they try so much as the equivalent of making a cup of tea.

Cameron made two assertions about Europe which really don't seem to me to stand up to scrutiny. The first assertion was his abnegation as party leader of any responsibility over the actions of his party's MEPs: "I don't routinely look at their voting behaviour", he told interviewer Martin Popplewell.

This, for a party that routinely rails at the European Union - rightly or wrongly - for the actions of its politicians and its officialdom, seems to me to be an extraordinary admission. What is the point of the Conservative Party sending MEPs to Brussels if the leader of their party takes no interest in what they do when they are there? And what is the point of him washing his hands of his MEP colleagues' actions, and then complaining loud and long about the decisions taken by the body on which they sit?

The second assertion was in response to the interviewer's probing of the Conservatives' choice of partner in Europe. Cameron's decision last year to pull the Conservative Party out of the centre-right European People's Party, and ally it with extreme right wing MEPs in the European Parliament, was a controversial one - not least among his MEPs themselves, who recognised the damage it would do, not only to the Conservatives' reputation but also to their influence in Europe. It prompted the decision of the former leader of the Conservative MEPs, Edward McMillan-Scott, to leave the Conservative group in the European Parliament, and then, earlier this month, to join the Liberal Democrats.

Cameron told Gay Times yesterday that "we would never ally with parties [in the European Parliament] whose views stepped beyond the pale". This can only mean that he regards the policies of his new European partners in the right-wing European Conservatives and Reformists group as acceptable.

The leader of that new group, Polish MEP Michał Kamiński, has been accused of antisemitism and homophobia, which he denies. The Latvian party 'For Fatherland and Freedom', also in Cameron's new group in Europe, has been criticised for commemorating Latvian Waffen SS soldiers.

If we are to believe Cameron, these views are not 'beyond the pale'. This can only end badly.

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