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 assistant editor of the New Statesman.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories