The latest Eurosceptic move is Cameron-friendly

100 Tory MPs have today called on the PM to do something he would almost certainly do anyway. Their

More than a hundred Conservative MPs have written to the Prime Minister - via the Daily Telegraph - demanding he resist the transfer of certain justice and policing powers to Brussels. So, another rebellion brewing, indicating division in the Tory ranks and threatening to destabilise David Cameron? Er, no, actually.

This is no belligerent broadside from the intransigent europhobic ultras. The names on the list include the usual and predictable suspects. Bill Cash is on there, so are Edward Leigh and Bernard Jenkin. But there are also new MPs from the 2010 intake - Chris Skidmore, Charlotte Leslie, Priti Patel, Kwasi Kwarteng, Dominic Raab, Charlie Elphicke (those last two being, apparently, the organisers of the thing). These are thrusting, ambitious types, tipped for big things in the future. They are not the sort to casually blot their copy books with ill-judged campaigns that might embarrass their most vital potential patron in Downing Street. A key signatory is George Eustice, a former press spokesman for Cameron and, in a past political life, a candidate for Ukip. He represents the overlap between the new MPs' raw eurosceptic instincts and their preferences not to come across as troublemakers.

Many of the signatories would only have put their names to this missive with reassurance that no harm to their future careers would be done by it. Indeed, it is not so far-fetched to suppose that the Tory whips and Number 10 are supremely relaxed about this manoeuvre. Supportive, even.

Why? The move the letter urges is not as demanding as it might seem. In most respects, "repatriating" powers from Brussels would require a difficult negotiation, re-opening past treaties, building alliances with like-minded governments elsewhere in Europe and offering concessions to secure a deal. That much Cameron found to his cost when demanding special protection for the City in December (in a way that amounted to a repatriation of certain regulatory powers). The answer was an unequivocal and swift "no".

But what the Telegraph letter refers to is the exercise of an "opt out" - which just to confuse matters is really the selective exercise of an "opt in" - with regard to combined European Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) policy. This is a fast-growing body of European law to cover cooperation between different national jurisdictions on matters such as extradition, arrest warrants and, most controversially, asylum and immigration. The theory behind integrating policy in these areas is that migration issues and crime are plainly borderless enterprises, so EU policy should evolve to reflect that fact.

The idea of ceding authority over aspects of the British justice system to EU institutions is anathema to the Tories. It didn't much appeal to the last Labour government either and the UK negotiated the right to "opt in" to measures in this field on an ad hoc basis. Under the Lisbon Treaty, Britain continues to be able to pick and choose when it comes to participation in JHA measures but not forever.

After the 1 December 2014, the separate JHA "pillar" of EU policy will be merged with the bulk of EU practice and so decisions made in that area will be approved or rejected by a qualified majority vote in the European Council - the regular Brussels summits of EU leaders. In other words, from that moment onward, there would be no veto option. Six months before that happens, the UK has to decide whether it is in or out of the whole JHA integration process. No more pick 'n' mix.

So the deadline is June 2014. Now it so happens that integration in the JHA field is quite popular with the police. It has helped track down terrorists and serious organised criminals hiding out in other European countries. It has enabled the smashing of European paedophile rings. It is also popular with the Liberal Democrats. When challenged on his Europhilia in the 2010 election, Nick Clegg extolled the virtues of the European arrest warrant as an example of something practical and useful that the EU does.

But there are clearly problems too. British authorities complain about the cost and administrative hassle of dealing with mountains of extradition requests from other EU jurisdictions for petty offences - the Polish plumber who turns out to be wanted on a shoplifting charge in Krakow and has to be shipped there at UK expense. There is also understandable squeamishness about limiting British powers to intervene when citizens are hauled before other countries' courts.

Anyway, the pros and cons argument hardly matters because there is simply no way David Cameron could get away with signing up to the fully integrated JHA package even if he wanted to. It would probably require a vote in parliament and could easily and realistically be presented as a substantial cession of sovereignty, which, under the 2011 European Union Act would trigger a referendum.

Bear in mind also that the June 2014 deadline coincides with elections to the European parliament. The last time around, Ukip came second in the national vote.

What the signatories to the Telegraph are asking is that Cameron refuse to exercise his full JHA opt-in, thereby, at a stroke, "repatriating" a bunch of powers from Brussels. It is pretty hard to imagine him doing anything else. The Lib Dems won't like it, but a year before a general election it is just as hard to imagine them ramping up their anti-Tory rhetoric on the basis that they want to make it easier for British citizens to languish in Bulgarian jails as, no doubt, the eurosceptic press will depict their position.

This may come across as an arcane technical process, but it is definitely exercising strategic minds on both sides of the coalition. There is no particular reason why a bunch of Tory MPs should suddenly today decide to urge the Prime Minister to do something in 2014, which, in any case he probably means to do. Unless, of course, there is an appetite in the party for putting down markers, staking out policy territory, in case the Lib Dems start feeling a bit cocky about their influence over European policy. This is not a manoeuvre against Cameron, it is a shot across Nick Clegg's bow and I don't suppose Number 10 is unhappy about that at all.

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

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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