Cameron comes home to another Europe revolt

The PM's truce with his backbenchers is under increasing strain.

"He's sold us down the river". So said one party leader of David Cameron's new EU stance. Except the leader in question wasn't Ukip's Nigel Farage but Ed Miliband, speaking on ITV's Daybreak this morning. The Labour leader has annexed the language of betrayal from the Conservative right. He went on: "I'm going to be asking him in the House of Commons today what exactly has he agreed to, what protections has he got for Britain." Do his words, combined with the threat to vote against additional UK funds for the IMF, herald the long-awaited rebirth of Labour euroscepticism?

Whatever the answer turns out to be, it's not hard to see why Miliband is keen to maximise Cameron's political discomfort. The Prime Minister will return from Brussels today to a Conservative revolt over his decision to allow EU countries to use the European Commission and the European Court of Justice to enforce their new "fiscal compact". The Prime Minister's "veto", you'll recall, was supposed to prevent just such an outcome. The government continues to warn of legal action if Britain's interests are "threatened" by the new treaty (in other words, that the single market is undermined) but it's still a U-turn by any measure.

So, what explains this outbreak of pragmatism? In a phrase, Cameron has put economics before politics. The priority, he insists, is to resolve the eurozone crisis by ensuring the swift implementation of the new treaty. It's hard to see how the pact, committing EU members to German-style austerity, will aid European recovery but Cameron's intentions, at least, are good. As the PM commented yesterday:

The key point here for me is what is in our national interest, which is for them to get on and sort out the mess that is the euro. That's in our national interest.

But his backbenchers, many of whom are appalled that the UK is collaborating in the establishment of a fiscal union, don't accept Cameron's logic. The PM's willingness to allow the EU 25 (everyone except the UK and the Czech Republic) to use EU-wide institutions renders his veto meaningless, they argue. Here's Tory MP Douglas Carswell:

I don't see how the veto is really a veto if we allow the fiscal union members to form and to then find ourselves subject to the EU institutions being used to govern that.

With 20 MPs reportedly meeting in Edward Leigh's office last night, we can except plenty of dissenting voices when Cameron delivers his statement on the summit at 3:30pm in the Commons. But what the revolt currently lacks is a frontbencher, Iain Duncan Smith, say, or Owen Paterson, to tighten the noose on the Prime Minister. Until such a figure publicly intervenes, Cameron will probably be able to muddle through. But less than two months on from his celebrated "veto", the truce he struck with his MPs is under increasing strain.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.