The exit beckons for Britain

A bigger danger lurks for Brown if he doesn't make the case for the EU treaty.

As EU leaders gathered for their latest summit, Britain's Euro sceptics fired their heavy artillery rounds. The Conservatives, the Sun, Mail and Telegraph whipped themselves into a fury, convinced that if they took their analysis of the EU reform treaty to new hyperbolic heights, they could force the government to offer a referendum. After all, they forced Tony Blair into such a retreat on the earlier constitutional treaty, in 2004, after he had said he would never do such a thing.

Britain's beleaguered pro-Europeans are now invisible. Gordon Brown, with an eye to the gallery, has threatened to veto any deal that does not respect his "red lines" - although his negotiators have already secured all their objectives.

Amid all the theatrics, a potentially more dramatic issue is at stake. It is rarely mentioned. If Brown succumbs to the pressure and holds a referendum, and if, as would almost certainly be the case, voters say "No", while all the others backed it, Britain would find it virtually impossible to stay in the EU. Technically, a new treaty cannot be implemented unless every member-state ratifies it. In practice, however, the other 26 would not be prepared to forget about the reform treaty - the fruit of six years' work - and live happily with the current, inadequate arrangements.

In such a scenario, the British should not expect their partners to offer concessions in order to make the treaty more palatable. They are fed up with us. During the negotiations in the Constitutional Convention, and two subsequent intergovernmental conferences, the UK has insisted on "red lines" and opt-outs, got what it asked for, and has come back and asked for even more. It has won all the substantive arguments by threatening to use its veto. As a result, the reform treaty has the Union Jack painted all over it.

If the British said "No", the country would be given time to reconsider. If it did not change its mind, it would be offered a status similar to Switzerland's or Norway's - in the single market, but outside the EU and unable to vote on its rules. The other member-states would renounce the existing treaties and readopt them - and the reform treaty - but without Britain.

So how likely is a British referendum? Might Brown follow Blair's example and cave in to the tabloid-led campaign? Ministers are adamant that this treaty will be ratified in parliament, and in parliament alone. They are likely to defeat Tory amendments in both houses that call for a plebiscite. In the Commons, a few dozen Labour rebels may vote with the Tories, but the Liberal Democrats' leadership, if not all their backbenchers, will side with the government.

But what if the Mail and the Sun decide to make Brown's life a misery unless he grants a referendum? Labour's weak position in the polls may make it harder for him to resist. The Conservatives are attacking him for "reneging" on the promise of a referendum, and thus being untrustworthy. Some of the Prime Minister's aides could thus see the offer of a referendum as a means of restoring trust in him and keeping the tabloids onside.

Face down the foes

It is not hard to mount the argument against a referendum: the reform treaty's most significant innovations - such as reducing the role of the rotating presidency, and merging the jobs now performed by the high representative (Javier Solana) and the commissioner for external relations (Benita Ferrero-Waldner) - reshuffle existing institutional arrangements. Compared to earlier EU treaties, such as the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty, the reform treaty does not shift significant powers from the member-states to the EU.

But the government cannot easily make that case, because it did, foolishly, promise a referendum last time around. The old constitutional treaty's provisions are similar to those of the reform treaty, as the Commons EU scrutiny committee has pointed out. Yet ministers are right to argue that the form of the new document - an amending treaty - is different from its predecessor, which consolidated all previous treaties into one text, with constitutional trappings. They are also correct in saying that the special provisions applying to the UK, including de facto opt-outs from important provisions on justice and home affairs, social policy and the Charter of Fundamental Rights, mean that, as far as it applies to Britain, the reform treaty is quite different.

I predict that the government will face down the tabloids. It knows that Europe is not an important issue for most voters. Those who really do care are going to vote Tory anyway. If Brown did grant a referendum, he would look weak. And the government would almost certainly lose it, further energising the Conservatives in the run-up to the election.

If Brown and his ministers want to prevent the referendum campaign gathering momentum, they will need to go on the offensive, arguing the case for the reform treaty, rather than looking sheepish and defensive, as they do now.

Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform

This article first appeared in the 22 October 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s afraid of Michael Moore?

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
Show Hide image

Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496