In the past week, Rishi Sunak’s floundering government has twice spurned no-brainer opportunities for closer co-operation with the European Union.
A decision on rejoining the Horizon scheme that funds scientific research has been deferred, again. And now, an opportunity for regular talks on global issues including defence and trade has been rejected, with the Financial Times reporting a senior Brussels official saying that Britain had “given the EU the brush-off”.
We have become used to poor decision-making from the governments of Sunak and his predecessors. But what is extraordinary in these two cases is the willingness of UK officials speaking off the record to admit that concerns about how co-operation with Europe would go down among Tory Brexiteer MPs have stymied what should have been easy wins for Britain.
On moves for regular formal meetings, the FT reported a UK source as saying, “We haven’t proposed a dialogue and we won’t be proposing one”, adding that they had cited “domestic political concerns in the ruling Conservative Party about being seen to move too close to Brussels.” Similar has been admitted on the move to push back a decision on Horizon until after the summer.
The decisions fly in the face of reason. The EU now holds regular formal talks with countries outside the bloc including China, Japan and Turkey but because of Brexiteer sensitivity is unable to do so with Britain.
On Horizon, Britain was a net beneficiary of the scheme before its Brexit-enforced exit, paying in £6.8bn and receiving back £7.2bn. Yet Sunak is scared of the reaction of Brexit big beasts like Iain Duncan Smith, who ludicrously told the Daily Express this week that Horizon was an “EU weapon to bully Britain” and that “the reality is the Horizon programme needs us more than we need it. We are the science superpower of Europe.”
Governments are supposed to govern in the national interest, even when it is politically difficult. Even in the last few years, Conservative prime ministers have gone against type to face down rebellions from their right over lockdowns, furloughs and fuel bills.
Yet Europe continues to divide the Tories like no other issue, and Sunak appears unwilling to do the right thing for Britain if the price is enraging Brexiteers so close to a general election.
This week, the prime minister has shown that he is unwilling to govern in the national interest. If so, what is the point of him continuing to govern at all?