The brilliant Peter Oborne writes:
It is more than 50 years since President Eisenhower destroyed a British prime minister, Anthony Eden, when he pulled the plug on the Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956. It may turn out that a few carefully chosen words in an on-the-record briefing in London on Wednesday from US assistant secretary Philip Gordon have an equally dramatic effect.
One thing is certain. Mr Gordon has contemptuously smashed the foundation myth of the modern Tory party: namely, that somehow, out there, exists an “anglosphere”, a zone of common values that unites the English-speaking peoples, and in particular the US and Britain. For decades, Right-wing Republicans have beguiled credulous Conservatives into speculation that they were free to choose between America and Europe. Mr Gordon spelt out the uncomfortable truth that such an option does not exist, that British exit from the European Union would be unacceptable to the US – and that, so far as President Obama is concerned, Britain only matters as part of the EU.
It is important to grasp that Obama is doing no more than returning to the policy being pursued by the first George Bush. To Britain’s intense resentment, Bush used his 1988 presidential victory to reshape the United States’s engagement with Europe away from London and towards Bonn – and, after the fall of communism, Berlin.
This shift stalled after the first Gulf War, when many European countries pleaded neutrality while Britain threw its full support behind the US. The Bush strategy then collapsed entirely when Germany refused to get involved in the invasion of Iraq. For a brief period, Tony Blair’s Britain and George W Bush’s US joined forces as world policemen. It genuinely seemed that the anglosphere had assumed some kind of reality.
But we now have a new set of political leaders, and radically changed circumstances. The US is turning its face towards the Pacific while Britain counts for less. Indeed, I understand that the informal chatter of American diplomats that has followed Philip Gordon’s remarks is yet more devastating: Britain is a middle-ranking economy and declining military force which risks irrelevance outside the EU. We are low down the batting order, ranking behind not just China, Brazil, India and Russia but also – most painfully of all – well below Germany in international significance.
So it is worth spelling out the choice that the Obama administration believes we face: play a full part in Europe or face international isolation and irrelevance. More humiliating still, the US probably does not care all that much which choice wemake.
It is impossible to overstate how shattering this message is to Tory Eurosceptics. For two decades, Michael Howard, Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan Smith and others have cherished the US link as an alternative to Europe. Now they are being told that if they want to sustain their American friendship they must enter fully into the heart of Europe.
Hence last week’s screams of pain. Thatcherite Eurosceptics, who applauded every action of the Bush administration as it bloodily tried to rearrange the Islamic world, are now telling the US to mind its own business. This is shambolic. The Tory Right, if it wants to retain an ounce of intellectual credibility, has to start again. It needs to explain what Britain would be like outside the EU, who our trading partners and key allies would be, and why we would not be perilously isolated.
Left-wing Eurosceptics such as Tony Benn face no such intellectual problem. They have consistently warned that the EU was a capitalist block whose real purpose was to act as proxy for US capitalism around the globe. Indeed, Philip Gordon in his briefing made it plain that he understood the EU role in terms that Benn would instantly recognise: “We benefit when the EU is unified, speaking with a single voice, and focused on our shared interests around the world and in Europe.”
But the Tory Right’s long fantasy has ended. Their precious alliance with America now means an alliance with Europe, too. Their alternative – embattled isolation – is honourable but will carry little traction with the electorate. Only another crisis will rescue them; their best strategy is to keep quiet and hope for the worst. The eurozone crisis is not yet over, and if the single currency shatters, all bets are off.