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Prelude to the European Council


Sunday 18 November 2012

There is a school of thought that whether or not the European Council meeting at the end of this week (22-23 November) comes up with a deal on the European Union's budget for 2014-20 depends on David Cameron, the British prime minister. Everyone else would do a deal, an EU official was telling me on Friday. It is just a matter of whether Cameron wants one.

I find this school of thought a touch too optimistic, not to say simplistic (it tends to play down the concerns of other member states for the sake of playing up the drama of the soap opera that is the United Kingdom's relationship with the European Union), but let us suppose for a moment that it is true.

So if you are Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, and you are trying to get a deal (and he is, as my colleague Toby Vogel related here), what are you to make of the news from Corby on Friday?

Corby, in case you have never been there, is a town in Northamptonshire, in that ill-defined part of England known as the East Midlands. There was a by-election there on Thursday (15 November), ie, an election to choose someone to represent the constituency of Corby in the national parliament.

The Conservative MP who had been elected at the general election in 2010 had stepped down to move to New York. This time round, Labour (the centre-left) took the seat comfortably, with 48.4% of the votes, and the Conservative candidate was a distant second (26.6%). Not good news for Cameron, but not unexpected.

The bad news for Van Rompuy lies, I think, in the results for the other candidates. The candidate of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) placed third (14.3%). The candidate of the Liberal Democrat Party placed an abysmal fourth, receiving less than 5% of the votes cast.

Put another way, the most pro-EU party in English politics (Scotland and Wales are another matter) bombed badly, while an overtly anti-EU party returned its best-ever result in a national parliament election.

So should Cameron pay attention to his backbench MPs, who are afraid of being outflanked in Euroscepticism by UKIP, or should he listen to the junior party in the government coalition, which seems to be on course for electoral oblivion? Go figure.

Van Rompuy might also care to weigh up two more straws in the wind. One is an interview that the Labour leader Ed Miliband gave to the Sunday Telegraph. There is some intelligent commentary on it from Matthew D'Ancona here.

The second is an opinion poll published in another Sunday newspaper, The Observer, suggesting that in a vote on the UK's membership of the EU, 56% would vote for the UK to leave.

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