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.

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser