It is time to stand up to Tory euroscepticism

Disengagement or withdrawal would be disastrous for British influence and interests.

Something fundamental has changed in the nature of the British debate about Europe over the last 15 years. The last time the Conservatives were in power the division in the party was between those, like John Major, who wanted to remain “at the heart of Europe” and those who sought to renegotiate our membership in order to repatriate large areas of policy from the EU.  Today, the dividing line is between those who want to pick apart even the foundations of the single market and those demanding complete withdrawal.  Damaging disengagement is the new consensus within the Conservative Party – the only disagreements are about scale and timing.

The need to restate the case for our membership of the EU has therefore never been more pressing.  It has also never been more difficult.  The eurozone crisis has undermined confidence in Europe’s ability to act as a force for stability and prosperity, and the instinctive and understandable reaction of many is to pull back.  But the crisis has also revealed the extent of our interdependence with Europe.  The idea that political disengagement will insulate us from the economic problems of our continental neighbours is pure fantasy.  Our national interest lies in arguing for a reformed EU from the inside.

Globalisation has provided many opportunities for businesses and individuals alike, but it has also brought new challenges that even the largest and most powerful countries cannot solve on their own.  Climate change, global economic instability, cross border crime, nuclear proliferation, terrorism and energy security all pose significant risks for our society and our way of life. Dealing with these issues requires international cooperation on an unprecedented scale.

What is needed is joint decision-making and legal enforcement of the kind pioneered by the EU given that global agreements have fallen woefully short of the mark. Compare the success of the EU in driving up environmental standards in Europe with the failure to get sufficient agreement on halting climate change at a global level. Compare the deepening of trade ties within the European single market with the more limited progress made through the World Trade Organisation.

That is why the anti-European arguments espoused by different wings of the Conservative Party deserve closer scrutiny than ever before. The extreme wing of the Conservative Party advocates complete withdrawal from EU membership and the negotiation of separate bilateral trading relationship that would provide access to European markets.  The two examples most commonly cited are Norway and Switzerland.  Both countries certainly have strong economic ties to the rest of Europe, but neither enjoys anything like the freedom from EU laws and regulations that anti-Europeans want us to believe.

Norway belongs to the European Economic Area, which gives non-EU countries access to the single market.  But in exchange for that access, Norway has to adhere to the rules of the single market, including those relating to social and employment policy.  The only substantive difference is that its government has no say over how those rules are formed. It even has to contribute to the EU budget.

Switzerland has a little more flexibility with its mix and match approach defined through a series of bilateral agreements. But the essential principle is exactly the same - the more access it wants to the single market, the more EU legislation it has to transpose without having any say over its content.  For both countries the "democratic deficit" and loss of influence are a result of their non-membership.

The supposedly more moderate and modern wing of the Conservative Party would like to reduce our membership of the EU to a purely trade-based relationship. In this vein, Liam Fox recently argued for a return to the Common Market arrangement the UK first joined in 1973.  Taken literally, this would mean unscrambling the entire single market programme and allowing our competitors to re-impose non-tariff barriers against us.

More broadly, there are great dangers in unpicking the largest internal market in the world.  If we asserted as a matter of principle that countries only have to stick to the rules they like, some might choose to opt-out of limitations on state aids, the requirement to offer public contracts to competitive tender or any among thousands of other market-opening rules required by the EU.  The single market would start to unravel and British exporters would suffer.

The UK is a large member state and should be a strong proponent for an open and reformed EU. That can only be achieved by being at the heart of the Europe, not stranded on the sidelines. Even against the backdrop of the eurozone crisis, it is vital that pragmatic, pro-reform, pro-Europeans now make their voices heard and underline the risks of damaging disengagement or withdrawal that would undermine British influence and interests.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference following a European Union summit at the EU headquarters. Photograph: Getty Images.

Emma Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and former shadow Europe minister.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.