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.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The buck doesn't stop with Grant Shapps - and probably shouldn't stop with Lord Feldman, either

The question of "who knew what, and when?" shouldn't stop with the Conservative peer.

If Grant Shapps’ enforced resignation as a minister was intended to draw a line under the Mark Clarke affair, it has had the reverse effect. Attention is now shifting to Lord Feldman, who was joint chair during Shapps’  tenure at the top of CCHQ.  It is not just the allegations of sexual harrassment, bullying, and extortion against Mark Clarke, but the question of who knew what, and when.

Although Shapps’ resignation letter says that “the buck” stops with him, his allies are privately furious at his de facto sacking, and they are pointing the finger at Feldman. They point out that not only was Feldman the senior partner on paper, but when the rewards for the unexpected election victory were handed out, it was Feldman who was held up as the key man, while Shapps was given what they see as a relatively lowly position in the Department for International Development.  Yet Feldman is still in post while Shapps was effectively forced out by David Cameron. Once again, says one, “the PM’s mates are protected, the rest of us shafted”.

As Simon Walters reports in this morning’s Mail on Sunday, the focus is turning onto Feldman, while Paul Goodman, the editor of the influential grassroots website ConservativeHome has piled further pressure on the peer by calling for him to go.

But even Feldman’s resignation is unlikely to be the end of the matter. Although the scope of the allegations against Clarke were unknown to many, questions about his behaviour were widespread, and fears about the conduct of elections in the party’s youth wing are also longstanding. Shortly after the 2010 election, Conservative student activists told me they’d cheered when Sadiq Khan defeated Clarke in Tooting, while a group of Conservative staffers were said to be part of the “Six per cent club” – they wanted a swing big enough for a Tory majority, but too small for Clarke to win his seat. The viciousness of Conservative Future’s internal elections is sufficiently well-known, meanwhile, to be a repeated refrain among defenders of the notoriously opaque democratic process in Labour Students, with supporters of a one member one vote system asked if they would risk elections as vicious as those in their Tory equivalent.

Just as it seems unlikely that Feldman remained ignorant of allegations against Clarke if Shapps knew, it feels untenable to argue that Clarke’s defeat could be cheered by both student Conservatives and Tory staffers and the unpleasantness of the party’s internal election sufficiently well-known by its opponents, without coming across the desk of Conservative politicians above even the chair of CCHQ’s paygrade.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.