I wish the Conservative party’s attitude towards european policy made more sense. To be more specific, I wish the Prime Minister’s attitude made more sense. One can respect the views of, say, Bill Cash or Michael Heseltine without needing to agree with them. They have the merit of holding views that are easy to understand. This does not appear to be the case as far as David Cameron and his closest chums are concerned. And so, I’m afraid, James’s column in the magazine this week makes depressing reading. The Cameroons, he says, are shaping up for a referendum on the EU and this seems likely to be a manifesto commitment at the next election.
According to James – and he can be trusted on these matters – this is a wheeze designed to a) pep up the base, b) stymie Boris Johnson by preventing any Mayoral grand-standing on the issue and c) protect the Tory right flank from UKIP. You will notice that none of these even pretend to have anything to do with the national interest. This is a matter of party morale, discipline and tactical positioning.
Which is fine but also, just perhaps, not quite good enough. And what, in the name of the lord, do senior Tories propose the country votes on? Your guess is as good as mine and, by the sound of it, theirs too. As Brother Forsyth relates:
One source intimately involved in Tory electoral strategy told me recently that a referendum in the next manifesto was ‘basically a certainty’. The only debate now was about what ‘sequencing’ the manifesto should propose: renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union and then hold a referendum on the result, or hold a referendum asking for permission to go to Brussels and renegotiate.
My understanding is that, at the moment, the favoured option is to propose renegotiation, followed by a referendum on the new arrangements within 18 months. During the campaign, the Tories would argue for staying in if new terms could be agreed but leaving if the rest of Europe refused to play ball.
Neither of the options is a straight in/out vote. But either one would require drastic action. No Prime Minister could head to Brussels with an instruction from the people to change this country’s relationship with Europe and return with an opt-out from parts of the working-time directive.
Clear now? I doubt it. An in/out plebiscite at least offers a choice between easily-grasped options. What the Conservative leadership appears to prefer is something entirely different.
At some point it might be useful to add some meat to these "renegotiate!" bones. What, precisely, will be a matter for "renegotiation" and why, pray, should the other 27 members of the European Union agree with British demands to redefine our relationship with and responsibilities towards the EU? What is in it for them?
Perhaps the French and the Germans and everyone else will be so desperate to keep Britain within the fold that they will allow themselves to be rolled by British negotiators. I must say that I find such a hypothesis pretty fanciful but, who knows, perhaps it will play like this.
Again, however, what are we supposed to be "renegotiateing" and what, pray, will be the definition of a successful outcome? Suppose, for instance, that Brave Mr Cameron went to Brussels and returned home with a deal that made only token changes to Britain’s role in and responsiblities towards Europe?
Were that to happen the Prime Minister would a) be humiliated and b) be forced to argue that the United Kingdom should leave the EU because, well, because the costs of remaining a member of the EU are intolerable. And they would be intolerable even though those costs would be little changed from those borne at present and in circumstances that Mr Cameron does not believe warrant an In/Out referendum far less are cause to actually leave the EU. Cameron would be left to argue that what was tolerable yesterday is no longer so even though nothing at all has changed or actually happened to give him any real reason to change his mind or lower his tolerance for pain. He would, I submit, look a proper charlie.
Furthermore, it seems very strange to go marching off to fight a battle many of your own troops and supporters hope you will lose. A hefty – and perhaps growing – part of the Tory party wants Britain to leave the EU. These chaps won’t be supporting Dave, you know. If he could renegotiate membership then, bah, they might grudgingly accept this but, really, they actually want him to lose his negotiating battle so that there’ll be no alternative to a proper In/Out referendum. This is not a great starting point for Mr Cameron.
All of which leads me to suspect that if the Prime Minister thinks this wheeze can solve his european problem – which is also a backbench and membership problem – he is very much mistaken.
Finally, James refers to "country membership" of the EU and I suspect that this is how the Tory Ideal has been described to him by someone at Number 10. With good reason: it sounds nice! But why would all the full members agree to grant Britain "country membership"? The country member, after all, enjoys all the privileges of the full member but, because he is presumed unlikely to take advantage of them as often as his metropolitan counterparts, receives a discounted membership. But Britain would still, even in Renogotiatedland, desire to play a full part in the aspects of Euroworld we like while being exempted responsibility for contributing towards or paying (in monetary and policy terms) the parts we don’t like but that everyone else considers a vital part of membership. The analogy to St James’ clubland sounds nice but it won’t work in the real world.Tags: Brussels, Cameron, Europe, Tories