Pro-EU Tories call on Cameron to provide leadership in the EU

Twenty-five Conservative MPs have written to the Prime Minister to express concerns over an “over-emphasis... on renegotiation and a referendum rather than leadership”.

A group of backbench MPs has written to the Prime Minister urging him to use his much-vaunted speech on Europe tomorrow to push for “bolder leadership focused on projecting Britain’s national interests in EU”. It seeks to remind David Cameron that a “retreat to the fringes” of the EU is not a welcome prospect to his whole party, and that there are those among his colleagues who believe that “disengagement from Europe is profoundly contrary to Britain’s national interests”.

Fifteen Tory MPs have put their names to the letter, which was sent to David Cameron on 15 January. The Financial Times’ Elizabeth Rigby reports (£) that a further ten MPs endorsed the letter under the condition that their names would remain anonymous, fearing the “virulent anti-European sentiment in their local associations”.

The letter argues that in many ways  – “economic reform, deregulation, competition, trade and the environment” – the EU has been shaped by positive British leadership and that when the UK demonstrates “energetic leadership and vision” we can achieve great things without the need to resort to constant discussion about retreat or withdrawal. The reference to the fact that such things are achieved with the “help of strong allies and continued goodwill” reads as a not-so-oblique criticism of the bridge-burning, confrontational rhetoric sometimes espoused by Eurosceptic Conservative MPs.

The signatories also express concern about a possible “over-emphasis in your speech on renegotiation and a referendum rather than leadership”, and fears that renegotiation would “potentially endanger Margaret Thatcher’s defining European legacy”.

When I spoke to Robert Buckland this afternoon, one of the MPs who put his name to the letter, he said that he was “hopeful” that the Prime Minister would have taken the letter into consideration when putting the final touches to his speech:

“Tomorrow, I’m looking for a sense of purpose, and a sense of how far we’ve come in the history of our relations with the EU. The Prime Minister has a strong sense of history – even if some say otherwise – and I’m looking forward to a positive speech that reflects concerns, but also reaffirms our continued commitment to being in the EU.”

He also told me that he believes the letter “reflects even wider opinion in the Parliamentary party”.

“The vast majority of MPs aren’t exactly what you’d call Europhile, but I believe they would support our continuing membership of the EU and I’m sure they are sensible and pragmatic rather than wishing to exit.”

While it’s encouraging to find a group of Conservative backbenchers making the case for a critical but positive relationship with the EU, it’s difficult to see their demands being met with any great enthusiasm from the Prime Minister. Tomorrow’s speech, then, has an important peace-making function to perform within the Conservative Parliamentary Party, as well as an agenda to set on the EU. With all that to do in one speech, it’s little wonder the PM put it off for so long.

You can read the full text of the letter below, first published on the Centre for British Influence's Tumblr:

The Rt Hon David Cameron MP

The Prime Minister

10 Downing Street

London

15th January 2013

Dear Prime Minister,

The Eurozone crisis has given added strength to a growing number of voices calling for Britain to either withdraw from the EU or retreat to the fringes. This view, often perceived as the default position of our Party, not only challenges official Conservative policy but also fails to reflect the views of many, including those names below, who believe that disengagement from Europe is profoundly contrary to Britain’s national interests.

We acknowledge the EU’s shortcomings and understand the desire and, under the Lisbon Treaty the possibility, to repatriate powers. However, we do our nation, as well as Europe, a disservice by not confidently exerting the same level of engagement and leadership as we demonstrate in organisations such as NATO, the G8, the UN Security Council or the Commonwealth.

When Britain does engage we get positive results. Many of the core features of today’s EU are thanks to British leadership. The Single Market is the creation of Margaret Thatcher and enlargement was the key legacy of John Major. Both helped create world’s biggest trading area which has enabled the UK to become the number one destination in Europe for foreign direct investment. From economic reform, deregulation, competition, trade and the environment, the EU is now following a policy agenda largely fashioned by the UK. Far from being perpetually isolated, we should stress that such an outcome has been achieved by the UK with the help of strong allies and continued goodwill.

The completion of the Single Market requires our energetic leadership and vision. Your Single Market letter of March 2012 is now supported by 18 member states. This is a manifesto for reform which would dwarf the adverse impact of those EU regulations which for many, through media reportage, is their only understanding of Britain’s EU experience. The rhetoric surrounding European integration misleads British MPs and media and thus thwarts a clear-headed British approach. The gap in understanding should be filled by a realistic and positive British vision for leadership in Europe based on the peace we have established through NATO, the prosperity we have created through the Single Market and the power we can leverage through our global relationships.

We are concerned that an over-emphasis in your speech on renegotiation and a referendum rather than leadership could undermine the Single Market. The UK has potential allies on many key issues, even on the merits of repatriating some powers. We fear that a renegotiation which seems to favour the UK alone would force other capitals to ask why they cannot simply dispense with those parts of the Single Market that don’t suit them, potentially endangering Margaret Thatcher’s defining European legacy. Senior business figures don’t want the UK to play a lesser role in the EU. They fear, as we know you do, the danger to British business and jobs of the UK being on the wrong side of a tariff barrier which could fatally undermine our government’s policy of rebalancing the economy so that we boost manufacturing and reduce unemployment.

We therefore advocate a cultural shift towards a bolder leadership focused on projecting Britain’s national interests in EU decision-making and encouraging other member states to support us in the process. It is regrettable that we could even contemplate a role equivalent to countries such as Norway and Switzerland. We hope that your speech will deal directly with these false choices and re-establish a sensible policy of positive leadership in Europe that we want - and that our country and indeed the continent needs now more than ever.

If you decide to give the British people a referendum, we will be supporting you, not only in making the case for continued membership of the EU, but in enhancing our leadership both in Brussels and the capitals of Europe, in the national interest, namely completing the Single Market, attracting foreign direct investment into the UK and exercising our strategic value in the eyes of our allies, particularly the United States. Like you, we want to be in Europe - for Britain.

Yours ever,

Laura Sandys

Margot James 

Stephen Dorrell 

Ben Gummer 

Ben Wallace 

Richard Ottaway

Bob Walter

Robert Buckland 

Neil Carmichael

Caroline Spelman 

Nicholas Soames 

Peter Luff

Jane Ellison 

Sir Malcolm Rifkind 

Kris Hopkins

 

David Cameron has an unenviable task in his speech on the EU. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses