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. She writes a weekly podcast column.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder