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The soap opera

Posted by Richard Thursday, December 08, 2011

In response to my piece on planting the flag, I had a note from journalist on a local newspaper. He told me the situation was so bad with his paper that, if there was a second coming, journalists would be required to ask of Jesus Christ himself what plans he had to help local community coherence.

But in addition to "planting the flag" or Londonising" pieces, it is as well to note that the other less than attractive habit of the modern journalist is to turn stories into soap operas. In such a guise, the actual issues take second place, merely a background to a narrative dominated by personalities, where the interplay between the characters is the dominant theme.

We can see this in the work of one of the pre-eminent gossip queens, Peter Oborne, who turns the complex issues affecting Cameron's response to the Merkozy treaty proposals into a classic soap opera narrative.

Looking at the developing situation, the man currently masquerading as our prime minister is under pressure from his own colleagues to adopt any one of three (or all) responses to the treaty proposals. He should either use the opportunity to seek the repatriation of powers, he should veto the treaty (unless he gets what he wants) and/or he should call a UK referendum, which presumably would reject the new treaty.

Assessing these issues, one can see logical and politically sound reasons why – from Cameron's perspective - none of these options should be invoked.

As to the repatriation of powers, we have a situation where, in an IGC, the chair, on the basis of a majority vote if need be – what we have called the Craxi doctrine - decides the agenda. And, in this case, it is very clear that only items directly related to the rescue of the euro are going to be considered.

Thus, Cameron has no means whatsoever of forcing his repatriation issues (if he actually has any) onto the agenda. His only remedy, therefore, it to threaten to veto any new treaty.

This option has also been suggested in the event that the treaty proposed ends up taking more powers from the UK and vesting them in Brussels – something which does not seem to be the case with the current Merkozy proposal. Cameron would have no direct grounds for a veto.

If, however, he invoked the veto because of a refusal to widen out the IGC and consider the repatriation of powers, he becomes the man who blocked the rescue of euro – and the man then responsible for the ensuing crisis.

Whatever one might think of Cameron (and I think we have made our views fairly clear), to expect him to do that is simply not realistic. This is not practical politics.

Likewise, a referendum might fall into a similar category. With the phrasing of the treaty proposal so far leaving the UK relatively unaffected, what would the question be? How about this?
European Union member states, including the UK, have agreed a treaty which is aimed at strengthening the eurozone. It does not take powers from the UK and give them to Brussels. Do you agree that the UK should ratify the treaty, or block it with the risk that the euro might collapse?
And just supposing something like that hit the streets, what do you suppose would be the majority response of the British people?

So, like it or not, action on three issues can be ruled out on the basic of sound political considerations, a calculus which does not have to take into account the personalities of those involved. The issues speak for themselves.

But that is not the way the British media works. Initially ignoring the issues themselves, Peter Oborne is able to turn the whole affair into a lurid episode of a "West Wing" style soap opera.

As "the flames of rebellion crossed the line from the backbenches into the Cabinet", he writes, "why on earth is the Prime Minister risking his career for the single currency, an ill-conceived monetary experiment which he has never supported and which he probably believes privately to be doomed?"

Against the backdrop of the flames licking the night sky, the first part of the answer to this mystery, we are then told, is Barack Obama. The Great POTUS is reaching down to The Boy, pleading with him save the euro. And, we are further informed, pleas from an American president (the latest in a private phone call yesterday afternoon) are hard to resist. The Boy rides to the rescue, all to save his hero in Washington.

Then there is the allure – or otherwise – of Nick Clegg. Europe is one of the great issues that could break his Coalition, and Cameron is determined that it should not do so. So The Boy must keep Cleggy on-side.

Only then do we get to the issues. Europe, writes Oborne, and conceivably the world, stands on the edge of economic calamity. If this week's "summit" goes wrong and the euro disintegrates, the scale of the disaster cannot be exaggerated.

In these circumstances, Oborne thus avers, the prime minister has one fundamental duty. "He must strain every sinew, make any sacrifice, to avert disaster. It would be a matter of national shame and disgrace if we toppled the euro over the edge by making too much of an issue out of working hours or the regulation of small businesses".

So, it is about shame and disgrace, on top of personal pleas from the US president, and a love-in with Nick Clegg. This is the world of Peter Oborne, from inside the bubble, every day a mini-TV series.

Would that politics was actually so entertaining, but then it is Oborne's job to make it so. The hard reality is, after all, so boring and what is a journalist for, if not to spice up reality a little bit, to make it more palatable? Why bother with issues, when you can populate your world with soap opera characters?

But then, the whole damn thing is artificial anyway. Says the FT, "Both the Tory sceptics and the euro-governments protest a little too much". Many of the sceptics just want a fight with Europe, it says, and seem to have little idea of how badly Britain could suffer economically, if the euro-zone crisis is not solved. But the Franco-German insistence that they have the perfect solution to the euro-crisis, if only the British would shut up and let them get on with it, is also deeply unconvincing.

Even more unconvincing, though, is the idea that this great "summit" is going to solve anything - and therein is the soap opera. One senses a certain weariness with it from the FT:
The package that is on the table in Brussels will not solve the crisis, but that is for reasons that have nothing to do with David Cameron's negotiating position. The problem is that it is not the "fiscal union" that is being spoken of – merely a new version of the old budgetary rules. And it also seems increasingly unlikely that the Brussels package will be used as a smokescreen or trigger to do what the markets really want – which is for the ECB to commit to huge purchases of Italian and Spanish bonds.

Next to these problems, an argument over Britain's role as a financial centre is really a sideshow. But I expect it will get plenty of coverage over the next 48 hours.
Nevertheless, one wonders why the hacks have to invent their own soap opera, when they had one prepared for them earlier.  Perhaps they needed to plant the flag on it.

COMMENT: "PLANTING THE FLAG" THREAD