"" src="http://cdn2.spectator.co.uk/files/2012/07/11111.jpg">Even after reading
"http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7334213/camerons-strategy-is-better-than-it-looks.thtml">Jonathan’s post, I struggle to see the strategy in David Cameron’s position with his party over
Europe. The motion is non-binding, and Miliband has three-line-whipped his party to vote against so there was zero chance of the motion passing. It is the result of a petition to parliament, so you
can’t write this off as the idea of a few Tory MPs in the tearooms. Cameron should have said:
"Sure, guys, have your vote. It’s a backbench motion, so the government won’t take part and as you know I’ve booked a trip abroad next Thursday anyway so I won’t be here. But I was
serious when I said those petitions are a way to "rebuild trust in politics". If this reached the threshold I set – 100,000 votes – then I’m happy for this to be debated,
with a free vote. If you ask me, it’s an odd time to discuss a referendum. But hey, I run the government – not parliament. You guys work for your constituents, not for me. So go for it. I
can’t pretend it’s top of my agenda. But let’s all be grateful that the control freak days of the last government are over."
Then the party could have expressed its view, without their being any question of rebellion.
Instead, we’re having a Maastricht-style standoff, a return to the Tory Wars of yore – and a needless injection of bad blood into the parliamentary party. It will reinforce the idea of the
Conservatives as a divided party, something that can only undermine its popular appeal. In confronting his party and ordering a three-line whip, Cameron will create a massive split – and one
that goes beyond Europe.
There are Tory MPs who aren’t that fussed about the referendum, but are annoyed at the way the Prime Minister is treating his party and want to put a marker down. As one senior backbencher told me
"The parliamentary party does have the power to remove the Prime Minister, and while he may think there is a 12 per cent chance of this you’d think he would try not make this less, not more,
likely." David Cameron does not have a political secretary in Number 10, as Tony Blair did.
I’m with Cameron on Europe in that I think that Britain’s membership of the EU is, on balance, a good thing. But it’s important to admit that we’re very much in the minority. Just 26 per cent of
the country says it’s a "good thing" according to an EU-wide poll conducted by the European Commission itself. That poll also show that no country trusts the EU less that Britain.
I’m not – yet – an "outer". To the chagrin of CoffeeHousers, I have defended our EU membership and place a huge value on the free movement of goods, services and people. I’d
prefer that Cameron saves Britain’s EU membership by repatriating powers, in the way that "http://www.spectator.co.uk/coffeehouse/7078283/web-exclusive-extended-inteview-with-david-cameron.thtml">he indicated to James Forsyth and myself that he would do. Right now, the net cost of
EU membership (£9bn a year) outweighs the benefits and our membership has no democratic support given that the Lisbon Treaty was passed in defiance of popular opinion by a Prime Minister who
broke a manifesto pledge.
Cameron’s bargaining position would be greatly strengthened if he had the full range of referendum options. The motion before parliament is not for a referendum now, it’s about giving the
government more referendum options should they need to be used. All this does is say to Brussels: "we’re serious". I struggle to see why it needs to be crushed by government
By all means let’s have a robust debate about Europe, but let’s not pretend this is an obsession from the Tory MPs. Poll after poll shows that Britain is, by some margin, the most reluctant member
of the EU. We printed a bunch of such polls on Coffee House here.
Like it or not (and I don’t) referenda have now become part of the model of British governance. We had one on AV, the Welsh had one on the powers of Cardiff Bay last year, there was one on the
North East Assembly and one on the Scottish Parliament. And the Brits have come to quite like it. When asked if you want a referendum, on EU membership or anything else for that matter, the answer
is usually "yes". It is very hard to argue that the people don’t want a say. If any CoffeeHousers know of evidence backing this claim up, please let me know.
In fact, a recent YouGov poll for the Constitution Society last September
asked what people would like a referendum on. "Britain’s membership of the EU" came top with 43 per cent. AV came second with 33 per cent.
I share Cameron’s instincts on Europe and – furthermore – I trust him to do the right thing. But I just can’t see why this confrontation was necessary. Cameron was right to call for a
new era of trust in politics, where such issues can be debated freely in parliament. It’s a great shame that the Prime Minister feels the need to shut this debate down.