Something quite curious is going to happen in the Commons this afternoon. David Cameron is encouraging his party to bang on about Europe. He has called a general debate, with the motion ‘that this House has considered the matter of Europe’, and it promises to be rather strange.
The strangest thing is that a month ago, David Cameron would never have dreamed of tabling this sort of debate: his camp were busy in October trying to quell an uprising of backbenchers over the EU Budget. But after the speech that delighted even Mrs Bone last week, Cameron finally doesn’t have to wait for a backbencher to pounce on him with entreaties on referenda and renegotiations: he’s got nothing to hide now.
In the press gallery, we’ve grown used to the slightly mournful look on the face of a Tory backbencher who has, once again, pressed the Prime Minister on the matter of Europe, only to get an answer that gives them no more detail than that Cameron does believe in the EU. So this debate will bring with it the profoundly odd sensation of backbenchers praising their party leadership for trusting the people and being bold on Europe.
For them, the sport is now to be found in poking the Opposition, telling Labour MPs that their party leadership doesn’t trust the voters who put them in Parliament and trying to tease out the party’s position after Ed Miliband’s messy PMQs (the Sun has more details on the wranglings at the top of Labour on its Europe policy). They could even be smiling as they do it.
MPs to watch on the Labour benches include those named on these two lists of pro-referendum opposition MPs. Kate Hoey made a particularly forceful speech on politicians losing touch with the electorate on Europe in the EU Budget debate which is worth re-reading.
But the Prime Minister might find the debate doesn’t go wholly in his favour. Without wanting to rain on his Europe parade, it’s also worth remembering that some MPs were not signing in the shower quite so enthusiastically as Peter Bone’s wife. Coffee House was first to report last week that John Baron, leader of a group of more than 100 MPs calling for legislation in this Parliament on a referendum, was worried voters would struggle to trust the Prime Minister. Some specific concerns such as these might still be raised.
Mind you, other MPs who normally take Europe very seriously are starting to focus on other fish. One Tory – definitely not a fan of the Prime Minister – tells me that ‘Dave is so last Parliament’, and that they’re now only interested in the same-sex marriage vote next week. The Times reports growing pressure from Cabinet ministers to placate the party with that all-important married couples’ tax break. This rapid move from one issue to another sounds a little ungrateful, but the sweet mood in the party has been soured by last night’s boundaries vote, with some delightful names for the Libs being bandied about since they emerged victorious from the lobbies. Cameron will be hoping that those MPs rediscovering their mournful faces after a brief period of uncontrollable eurosceptic grinning will at least stay away from the Chamber this afternoon.