David Cameron and Nick Clegg thought they had mapped out the perfect escape route before the prime minister toddled off to Brussels last week.
I suspect the conversation went something like this.
Cameron: “I’ll go armed with a few inoffensive demands to safeguard the city, which Merk and Jerk will be happy to go along with for a quiet life. I can then return looking as if I have asserted Britain’s interests in Europe – which will keep my lot quiet – and your lot won’t have anything to moan about either.”
Clegg: “Excellent Dave! And we can say I have thoroughly endorsed your negotiating position, which will mean the media have no cause to question the strength of the coalition.”
Well, that was the idea. Unfortunately, Frau Merkel and Monsieur Sarkozy called Dave’s bluff, and considerable chaos then ensued.
Clegg, unable to think on his feet, gave bleary-eyed approval to what had taken place before having his eardrums splintered by outraged bellowing from the likes of Lords Ashdown and Oakeshott.
They clearly believed their man had been set up by the caddish Tories and hadn’t been quick-witted enough to turn the betrayal to his advantage.
There then followed one of the most haphazard, amusing and calamitously ineffectual U-turns in recent British political history (and that’s saying something).
First Clegg confirmed Cameron’s requests for safeguards for the British economy had been reasonable. But the following day – ears still ringing – he said his actions were ‘bad for Britain’. Twenty-four hours later he made the greatest tactical mistake of what is likely to be a brief political career by refusing to take his place beside the prime minister in the Commons.
What he hoped would be viewed as a principled stand by furious members of his own party was immediately regarded as a sulky, snivelling cop-out by everyone else. It was a catastrophic, career-altering misjudgement. And we’re expected to believe this dysfunctional mob will govern Britain for the next three and a half years? I don’t think so.