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 can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.