It is Cameron vs. the Tories as EU vote approaches

The PM is facing the biggest ever Conservative rebellion on Europe -- a crisis largely of his own ma

David Cameron today faces the biggest Commons revolt of his premiership -- and potentially the biggest ever Conservative rebellion on the issue of Europe.

On 20th May 1993, 41 Conservative MPs voted against John Major on the third reading of the Maastricht Treaty. To date, this was the biggest ever Tory rebellion on whipped business on Europe.

Coincidentally, it is also the figure for the largest Conservative rebellion so far in this Parliament. Earlier this month, on 10 October, 41 Tory MPs voted against attempts to criminalise "insulting" words or behaviour. This did not make much of a splash in the news -- unlike the current vote, which has gathered attention both for the spectacle of the Tories fighting over Europe (again), and because of Cameron's belated decision to impose a three-line whip.

It is still unclear how many MPs will defy the whips to vote in favour of a UK referendum on Europe, but according to the highest estimates, it could be nearly double that 41 figure. If the list of Conservative MPs who openly pledged to support the referendum is combined with those who have already defied whips over Europe since the beginning of this government, the number is closer to 78. Separately, Sunny Hundal suggests that up to 10 Labour MPs could defy their whips to vote in favour of a referendum.

Cameron is attempting to reassure the doubters that in the event of treaty change, he will renegotiate Britain's position. The story dominating the papers this morning -- that Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy had a heated exchange on Europe -- fits the narrative that the Prime Minister wishes to further: that he is not afraid to anger European leaders in his defence Britain's interests. However, this does not appear to be getting through to his party.

In a survey for Conservative Home, 64 per cent of respondents said that they did not believe that Cameron was "very committed to repatriating any powers from the European Union", despite his promises, compared with just 18 per cent who did believe he wanted to repatriate "significant" powers.

It is impossible to say exactly how large today's Commons rebellion will be, and, as the Ballots and Bullets blog points out, the number that actually votes against the whip is almost always invariably less than that predicted. Even if the revolt is not as large as expected, however, it is difficult to see how Cameron can emerge well from this, and one must question his logic in applying the whip in the first place. Mary Anne Sieghart argues today:

If there had been a free vote, the motion might not even have been carried. But if it had, Cameron could easily have said, "I hear what you say. I agree that any renegotiated relationship with the EU will have to be endorsed by a referendum. But it's too early to call one now, when we don't yet know what shape the eurozone will take or what any new relationship will look like." He would have sounded both responsive and responsible. Instead he has absolutely infuriated his party.

Emotions in the Tory party are certainly running high, with at least one ministerial aide -- Stewart Jackson (£), aide to Owen Paterson, the Northern Ireland Secretary -- willing to vote against the whips even if it costs him his job. Graham Brady, the head of the powerful 1922 committee which represents backbenchers, is also set to defy the government (Lord Tebbit said yesterday that "not even Ted Heath faced the chairman of the 1922 Committee voting against a three-line whip"). While the vote is likely to go Cameron's way, the damage within his party will take longer to heal.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle