The Conservatives have just held a party meeting where Lynton Crosby was supposed to be reading them the riot act over their behaviour in the past few weeks. But the MPs leaving seemed to think it was ‘lovely’, ‘very positive’ and ‘all very tame’, which sounds like an unconventional roasting. The meeting focused on turning technical achievements into an emotional message and strategy for the European elections. The latter includes listing where the Conservatives have already delivered: on the EU budget, the veto and cutting bailouts, which should be proof enough that the Conservatives can deliver more.
Apparently the Prime Minister and George Osborne said nothing. It will be interesting to see whether this ‘roasting’ makes any difference to party discipline: Crosby has been successful in cheering up a number of backbenchers who were very grumpy about the way things were going through a combination of message discipline and swearing at the party.
But it is difficult to pin all the blame on those naughty Tory MPs. The Prime Minister has, as we pointed out in last week’s leading article, been a terrible manager who has often encouraged the rebellions by leading his MPs on. And one of the ways he’s led them on recently is to talk about forcing through the EU referendum bill – originally introduced in a panic by Number 10 as a symbolic measure to unite the party and highlight Labour and Lib Dem opposition to giving the British people a say on Europe – using the Parliament Act.
George Osborne told the Lords Economic Affairs Committee this afternoon that ‘wise as the House of Lords often is, I thought it was unwise to kill off the opportunity for the British people to have their say’ and that ‘you can rest assured that we will be offering that referendum in or before 2017’. He also tried to be upbeat about David Cameron’s prospects for European reform, even though Lord Lawson told him that ‘my friends on the continent of Europe’ say that ‘there is no way that a substantial and significant reform whether you like it or not is going to be agreed’. The Chancellor replied: ‘I don’t remember Lord Lawson when you were in office predicting the failure of your own endeavours.’ But there are plenty of Tory MPs who take the Lawson line.
There are also MPs who are agitating for more than the PM messing about with another backbench bill and a promise of the Parliament Act. They think that the Coalition has now reached a sufficiently comfortable state of cohabitation that it doesn’t matter if the Conservatives introduce an EU referendum bill in government time rather than through the circuitous route of a private member’s bill. I’ve spoken to Mark Pritchard, the engineer of the EU budget rebellion (which later became government policy), and he says:
‘Things have moved on. The next EU Bill should be a government bill.The Bill would attract far more cross-party support than a year ago – and would helpfully call the Parliamentary bluff of Ed Miliband, and more importantly, Labour MPs and even some Lib Dem MPs in marginal seats who are worried about Ukip.
‘The DUP are also likely to support such a Bill. Miliband and Clegg can’t duck and dive forever. This is an opportunity for the Conservative party, not a crisis.’