Cameron goes to the crease with a bat broken by his own party

The real division in the Tory ranks is between those who know how impractical confrontation in Bruss

As is customary before European summit meetings, political leaders from the European People's Party group in the European parliament met yesterday. This, remember, is the collective from which David Cameron withdrew the Tories in 2009, honouring a pledge he had made in order to win eurosceptic backing for his leadership bid in 2005. It seemed like a small price to pay then. Awkwardly, it now means the British prime minister is absent from an occasion that will include French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, European Council President Herman van Rompuy, Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and a brace of other EU leaders.

I've written before about how the decision to pull out of the EPP has caused more trouble for Cameron than he anticipated. What is interesting now is how little credit the Tory leader gets for it among the very MPs it was meant to appease. The eurosceptics bank concessions and then move on to demand more.

The same is true of the European Union Act that was pushed through parliament earlier this year, supposedly putting a "referendum lock" on any future EU deals that might involve a transfer of sovereignty to Brussels. This was meant to be compensation to the Tory party for Cameron's reneging on a pledge to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. He was terribly sorry that the treaty had been ratified, but could not unpick it and would make sure no such treaty was ever passed again.

Of course, when he formulated that position he didn't anticipate a round of treaty negotiations this parliament. Everyone thought that Lisbon marked the end of institutional reform for a generation. The Act was carefully worded so that ministers get to say what constitutes a transfer of sovereignty and so retain substantial control over whether or not there should be a referendum. Backbench sceptics weren't terribly impressed by that and, not surprisingly, many seem prepared to ignore the letter of the new law. Their view, apparently shared by Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Patterson, is that anything that emerges from the current summit is likely to amount to a new constitutional settlement between the UK and Brussels and so will eventually have to be put to the country in a referendum.

But the idea of Cameron asking the eurozone countries to put their rescue plans on hold while he holds a plebiscite is, frankly, absurd. In theory, Cameron could sign a treaty and ask parliament to ratify it and secure rebel Tory votes with a promise of a referendum later, but it would have to be an in/out vote.

The essential problem is that the sceptics want action that will signal clear and prompt disengagement from the EU, and any action of that kind ends up harming the UK's diplomatic position and negotiating clout. It is easy to promise "repatriation" and even a referendum in opposition, but in government the sheer impracticality becomes clear. Even some very eurosceptic Tories, such as William Hague, have found that ministerial office dulls their appetite for confrontation. They need to get things done with their counterparts in other countries. The hardline sceptics see this as going native or being "captured" by Brussels.

As I wrote in my column this week, frothy Tory euroscepticism makes it ever harder for ministers to build the kinds of alliances they need to promote UK interests in Europe. Countries that might support the British position - sceptical of institutional centralisation, seeking liberalising reform of the single market - need reassurance that we are serious about making the whole project work and not hovering by the exit or, worse, trying to sabotage the whole thing.

The painful reality that David Cameron must confront is that a number of his MPs are pursuing a strategy that pays no heed to the practical demands of running a government in the midst of a serious international economic crisis. To borrow Geoffrey Howe's famous metaphor, the UK prime minister is going out to the Brussels crease with a bat broken by his own backbenchers.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.