Adam Afriyie has certainly chosen an odd time to sow discord in Tory ranks over Europe. The party is so happy that it appeared oddly sedated at its conference last week. Even normally grumpy MPs are chuffed with the way Lynton Crosby and Grant Shapps are sharpening the Conservative message. And the PM has, in his own way, been trying his best to make backbenchers feel loved.
But Afriyie has also chosen an odd way of causing trouble in the party, possibly so odd that his amendment won’t have the desired effect. Not a single hardcore eurosceptic that I’ve spoken to this morning heard from the rebel MP before he announced his amendment in the Mail on Sunday. One says to me:
‘He hasn’t consulted eurosceptics and his strategy is peculiar and counterproductive. It’s career hara-kiri for him.’
That MP said they were unlikely to support the amendment. Meanwhile, Zac Goldsmith has pointed out that the bill already gives MPs the opportunity to show their constituents where they stand on Europe.
Andrea Leadsom, who is busy this autumn visiting European capitals with members of the Fresh Start Project making the case for reform across the EU, tells me:
‘I think an early referendum on the EU would be disastrous for Britain. We have a once in a generation chance at real reform (as a result of the eurozone crisis and fiscal union) but the negotiation will take time. Early referendum risks wasting the chance to be part of a genuinely competitive and accountable EU – all the reforms Fresh Start and others have been pressing for – just when we are gaining traction with other EU politicians.’
Other MPs may disagree that Britain will ever gain sufficient traction with EU politicians to negotiate the sort of changes that they want. Others were holding fire on the referendum bill to focus their troublemaking over what the PM actually wants from a renegotiation. But either way, there seems to be sufficient frustration in Tory eurosceptic ranks with Afriyie’s move to mean this won’t be a straightforward row from his point of view.
The key thing that James Wharton and Number 10 need to do over the next few weeks is to convince backbenchers that supporting an early referendum would in fact be less eurosceptic than supporting the bill unamended. Eurosceptic MPs will always opt for the most robust option, for fear that their constituents might look at their voting record and surmise that they are secretly a europhile: it was this thinking that led to the potty Queen’s Speech motion of regret gaining such traction. If the Afriyie amendment passes, the Bill will be withdrawn, which means eurosceptics will have eaten themselves in their fervour. My hunch is that with the party currently in a pretty good mood and more interested in making life difficult for Labour than David Cameron, this won’t be as difficult an argument to make as it might have been.Tags: Adam Afriyie, EU referendum, Europe, UK politics