Whitehall is calling it the “hidden war”. I learn that for months now British diplomats have been “in the trenches” fighting to repel Eurocrats trying to extend their influence under cover of the Lisbon treaty. At one point comparisons were even made to the beef war of 1996, when Europe banned exports of British beef for fear of mad cow disease and the UK retaliated by blocking European decisions.
“The Lisbon treaty is very vague,” I was told. “Nobody has sorted out where the competence of Europe stops. The UK has to decide whether to tell Brussels to sod off, that ‘this is a matter for us, not you’ – in which case Whitehall departments will be in the lead on hundreds of issues. If on every battle we decide to stand on legal points, it could be just like the beef war.”
There had been hopes that the UK’s Kathy Ashton, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, would get a grip on the issue. Lady Ashton, however, has reportedly been invisible on the question, leaving individual UK ambassadors to police the treaty. The fear is that “every ambitious Belgian diplomat will push the boundaries”. There has also been pressure from some smaller countries who do not care much about sovereignty and who want Europe to ... er ... “amplify” them. Britain, I am told, neither wants nor needs to be “amplified” by Brussels.
What is puzzling about this conflict is the secrecy. You would think that Tory ministers at their party conference in Manchester this week would have been shouting their defiance of Brussels from the rooftops and earning plaudits from their rightwing eurosceptics. Instead, Europe has been almost a taboo subject in the conference hall with all discussion banished to the fringe. So what is going on?
For one thing, the Tory leadership has been determined to keep their rightwingers battened down, so bitter are memories of the party’s previous divisions over Europe. In addition, the latest news from the euro front is that our troops have been gaining ground. They have been winning allies among some of the smaller euro countries who have decided that they do not want to be bossed about by Brussels. Discussions are at a “delicate stage”. Nobody wants anti-euro fanatics rocking the boat.
Outsiders should join the senior civil service (SCS) one tier down from the top, says Sir David Normington, first civil service commissioner. This week, Sir David tells the Civil Service World newspaper that there’s “something about the culture and nature of the civil service that you have to learn, and it’s quite hard to learn it in the exposed position of permanent secretary”.
His words echo those of Sir Gus O’Donnell, the cabinet secretary. Today some 40 per cent of the SCS are outsiders and Sir Gus says it is “so important that they should understand our values” – particularly when the conduct of the police, the media and MPs is being questioned. It’s all so different from the old days. One of Sir Gus’s predecessors, Lord (Robert) Armstrong of Ilminster, recalls that in his time standards were not set down in a code. “You just knew how to behave,” he says.
David Cameron has issued a toe-curling apology to two women MPs because some innocuous banter he had directed at them was sexist. Yet the tradition of Tory prime ministers delivering put-downs to bossy women is an old one. There was the case of Winston Churchill and Nancy Astor, Britain’s first woman MP who reputedly said: “Winston – you’re drunk.” Replied the great man: “And you madam are ugly – but I shall be sober in the morning.”
Disraeli was another who knew how to patronise the fair sex. Back in the 1870s he went to a dinner party where he was seated next to Princess Mary, Duchess of Teck. (Known as “Fat Mary”, she was a granddaughter of George III, cousin of Queen Victoria and mother of Queen Mary, consort of George V.) The issue of the day was whether England would join the Russo-Turkish war on the side of the Turks. The forthright Princess Mary was certainly in favour and Disraeli was known to be keen on curbing Russia’s territorial ambitions.
Halfway through dinner she turned to him and inquired : “What are you waiting for Mr Disraeli? The Queen is for you, the army is for you. What are you waiting for?”
“The potatoes ma’am,” replied Disraeli.