Cameron's EU strategy puts party interests before the national interest

A pledge to hold an in/out referendum will appease Tory MPs, but it will not deliver for Britain.

This week the curtain rises on the new Westminster year - and already speculation about the Prime Minister’s much delayed speech on Europe has begun. But the fact 2013 is earmarked to begin with such a speech reveals more about the Prime Minister’s weakness at home than his agenda abroad.

Both the timing and content of this speech have little to do with policy and everything to do with politics. The truth is that David Cameron didn’t give the speech in 2012 because he didn't know what to say. To deliver for the country the speech would need to be about how Britain plans to lead the reshaping of post-crisis Europe. Yet for the speech to deliver for his own party, only one line will really matter... and that is whether or not David Cameron commits to an in/out referendum.

It is this tension that has left the Tory leader stranded speechless for the past year between the party interest and the national interest. If, for reasons of his party's divisions and weakness in the polls, he succumbs to calls in the coming days for an in/out referendum, he will have to answer questions not just about his political judgement, but also about his political priorities. Of course the Prime Minister may hope that such an in/out referendum announcement can help convince UKIP voters to return to the Conservative party. But instead he should be asking himself: is Europe really as much of a priority in the public's mind for this new year as it is for him or his party?

And even if he thinks it is: is an in/out referendum really the biggest issue we have to face in Europe today? My answer to both would be no. Why?

First, British business leaders are already nervous, but this could turn to real fear if an under pressure Prime Minister now announces an in/out referendum and the perception takes hold that many Conservative MPs - including some cabinet ministers - are simply awaiting exit. If the government disagrees with this they should publish, along with David Cameron's speech, all the advice to ministers from BIS and the Treasury about the impact of such an announcement on UK business and inward investment prospects.

Announcing an in/out referendum halfway through this parliament to take place more than halfway through the next, given the Conservatives' hostility towards Europe, could risk up to seven years of economic uncertainty, threatening vital investment and effectively playing Roulette with the country's economic future. Indeed, even his own Foreign Secretary William Hague has told the House of Commons that "It would create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time.” The Prime Minster himself has made much in recent days of his ambition to secure an EU-US trade deal during the UK's G8 Presidency. It's a laudable economic goal, but he seems less keen to recognise that to achieve it relies entirely on British membership of Europe. A Britain outside Europe would be unable to even aspire to such a deal.

Second, focusing on an in/out referendum now actually risks the UK missing the best chance in a generation to reform Europe so that it better serves our interests and meets our expectations. Simply presenting a shopping list of repatriations - backed by the threat of exit – will not deliver for Britain and will undermine our ability to shape and lead the broader project of EU reform.

If he disagrees, the Prime Minister should publish alongside his speech the advice to FCO ministers about what impact this approach would have on our influence in Europe at this crucial time. Labour takes a different view. We are clear that any future decision on a referendum should be based on changes in Europe, not movements in the polls.

While the Prime Minister is right to recognise that Europe, and our position within it, is changing, he is wrong to imply that these changes inevitably threaten our interests. It is still unclear how these changes will affect Britain’s relationship with the EU, or indeed the nature of our membership.

That is why the priority must be for Britain to use the coming months and years to shape and lead this process of change by pursuing an agenda of wide ranging reforms and not simply narrow repatriation. Britain’s real interests lie in the EU as a whole being reformed to make it fit for purpose and better placed to compete in the new global race. But our chance of succeeding in this task is increased if it is positioned as right for all European countries, not just the UK. Subsidiarity within the EU is not a new idea, but an old one worth focusing on anew. At its inception the EU was designed to accommodate varying levels of integration and Britain has always benefited from this. If however, Britain were to open the door to an a la carte EU, it could be us that suffer as other member states demand reforms that undermine the single market.

Institutional flexibility and not unilateral national repatriations is what will best protect British interests within a reformed EU. In the past the case for the EU was based on delivering peace and prosperity. Today these are the foundations on which we must build a reformed Europe that effectively amplifies the power of each of its members.

Labour is clear that Britain's future lies within the European Union. But we also recognise that Europe today needs a reform agenda that prioritises growth, strengthens the single market, pools resources in defence effectively, promotes free trade deals regionally and globally, and develops systems to tackle climate change, cross border terror and crime.

Few would deny that David Cameron’s speech comes at a crucial time, but sadly it seems to be being made for all the wrong reasons. It simply won't have been worth the wait if Cameron's internal weakness results in a speech for his backbenchers instead of one for his country.

David Cameron speaks during a press conference at the EU headquarters on December 14, 2012 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.
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MP after a moonlighting job? I've got the perfect opportunity

If it's really about staying in touch with the real world, how about something menial and underpaid? Or reforming parliamentary rules on second jobs...

There she stood outside Number 10 on 13 July last year, the new Prime Minister pledging with earnest sincerity her mission to fight injustice and inequality, to “make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us”.

 “When it comes to opportunity,” she promised the ‘just managing’ millions, “we won’t entrench the advantages of the fortunate few". Another new day had dawned

But predictably since then it’s been business as usual. If we needed proof, George Osborne has provided it: those who have so little must continue to go without so that the man with so much can have it all.

What would it take for Tory backbenchers to trouble Theresa May’s serenity? Not her u-turn on Brexit. Nor her denial of Parliament’s right to scrutinise the terms of the UK's uncertain future. Certainly not a rampant Labour opposition.

But were she to suggest that they give up their adventures in the black economy and focus on the job their constituents pay them for, she would face a revolt too bloody to contemplate.

Fifteen years ago, I introduced the short-lived Members of Parliament (Employment Disqualification) Bill. My argument was simply that being an MP is a full-time job for which MPs are paid a full-time salary. If they can find time to augment an income already three times the national average, they can’t be taking it seriously or doing it properly.

Imagine the scandal if other public servants - teachers perhaps or firefighters – were to clock off whenever they fancied to attend to their nice little earners on the side. What would become of Britain’s economy if employers were unable to prevent their workers from taking home full pay packets but turning up to work only when they felt inclined?

But that’s what happens in the House of Commons. Back in 2002, my research showed that a quarter of MPs, most of them Conservatives, were in the boardroom or the courtroom or pursuing lucrative consultancies when they should have been serving their communities. And it was clear that their extra-curricular activities were keeping them from their Parliamentary duties. For example, in the six month period I analysed, MPs with paid outside interests participated on average in only 65 per cent of Commons votes while MPs without second jobs took part in 91 per cent.

I doubt that much has changed since then. If anything, it’s likely that the proportion of moonlighting Members has risen as the number of Tory MPs has increased with successive elections.

Their defence has always been that outside interests make for better politicians, more in touch with the "real world". That’s entirely bogus. Listening to people in their surgeries or in their local schools, hospitals and workplaces provides all the insight and inspiration a conscientious MP could need. The argument would be stronger were absentee MPs supplementing their experience and income in the menial, insecure and underpaid jobs so many of their constituents are forced to do. But, they aren’t: they’re only where the money is.

It’s always been this way. The Parliamentary timetable was designed centuries ago to allow MPs to pursue a gentleman’s interests. Until relatively recently, the Commons never sat until after noon so that its Members could attend their board meetings – or edit the Evening Standard - and enjoy a good lunch before legislating. The long summer recess allowed them to make the most of the season, indulge in a few country sports and oversee the harvest on their estates.

The world has changed since Parliamentary precedent was established and so has the now overwhelming workload of a diligent MP. There are many of them in all parties. But there are also still plenty like George Osborne whose enduring sense of entitlement encourages them to treat Parliament as a hobby or an inheritance and their duty to their constituents as only a minor obstacle to its enjoyment.

Thanks to Osborne’s arrogance, the Committee on Standards in Public Life now has the unflunkable opportunity to insist on significant, modernising reforms which remind both MPs and their electors that public service should always take precedence over private interest. And if sitting MPs can’t accept that principle or subsist on their current salary, they must make way for those who can. Parliament and their constituents would be better off without them.

Peter Bradley was the Labour MP for The Wrekin between 1997 and 2005.