‘I’m a man with a plan,’ David Cameron told the Conservative party conference in 2008. Now the Prime Minister is struggling to give the impression he does have a plan for dealing with the Europe problem in his party: and he needs one, because things are going to get a lot stickier.
The furore around tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech amendment is in many ways rather amusing because however backbenchers, PPSs and ministers vote, it doesn’t change a thing outside the Commons chamber. It simply says the Tory party wishes there had been an EU referendum bill in the Queen’s Speech. For all the criticisms that he’s running behind his party on this, it is fair to say that the Prime Minister has learned from his mistakes in past Europe votes. At least PPSs are being given a free vote, which significantly neuters its power. There will be no martyrs in the Chamber tomorrow over an unnecessary vote, even though the Tory party contains plenty of MPs who quite fancy a public resignation over a point of principle. David Burrowes, one of the PPSs who has publicly said he wants to support the Baron/Bone amendment, is regularly coming close to being the third PPS to Owen Paterson to resign over a panoply of issues: Gary McKinnon, the gay marriage programme motion, and now this. Remember what a mess the whips made of the last vote on an EU issue that wasn’t entirely unhelpful to the Prime Minister: the leadership is at least trying to avoid a repeat of that.
But the reason the Prime Minister needs a plan is that this obscure amendment isn’t the end of the Tory Eurosceptics’ campaign. Coffee House has already covered their desire not just to introduce backbench bills guaranteeing a referendum, but also to amendment any relevant legislation going through the House. As James argued this weekend, Downing Street can’t afford to be caught napping on this. Even the Private Member’s Bill ballot presents a challenge to the Prime Minister because his MPs will be watching avidly for any sign that he doesn’t fully support it. This is as much about his commitment to his party as it is about his commitment to the referendum. Backbenchers want to know that he cares more about the Tories than he does about the preservation of his relationship with Nick Clegg.
He also needs a plan because around him, everyone wants the Coalition to change. The Lib Dems are blocking reforms they initially gave the nod to, which earned them a public dressing down from Michael Gove on the Marr Show yesterday. Meanwhile Tory backbenchers are getting a funny glint in their eye about the conclusion of the partnership, which they see as being inextricably linked with Europe. Some are so impatient that they hope their new campaign of guerrilla warfare in the Commons will start to unpick the stitches between the two parties. It’s not just hardened Eurosceptics who think this: there’s a hope that the Coalition will break up in time for the Prime Minister to cement that referendum pledge ahead of the general election. Some wish this could happen before the European elections.
‘He has my full support, and I personally back legislation now to make sure that referendum goes ahead.’
What an easy thing to write when you’re not the chap manacled to the Lib Dems. But Boris’ comments do show that the Prime Minister really needs a plan. He needs to show his backbenchers that they are more important than Nick Clegg. He needs to work out how to do the really gory government that Clegg is forcing on him. And he needs to work out whether there is any way at all that he can throw just a little bit more red meat out to his party on Europe without really fracturing the Coalition but possibly still annoying the Lib Dems.