The real reason the right is baying for Denis MacShane's blood

The former Labour MP has been targeted because he's the EU's greatest defender, not because of his expenses.

What’s really going on with this new police investigation into Denis MacShane’s expenses? Months ago, the police said there would be no charges, and there’s no new information. There’s a reason why they have suddenly reopened it, now of all times, and it’s got nothing at all to do with Denis’s expenses, and everything to do with David Cameron’s speech about Europe.

I’m not excusing MacShane (who, incidentally, is an old chum – but I’d be writing this if I’d never met him.) He had £7,000 of public money which – or some of which - he wasn’t entitled to, and claimed the money in a way which made it look dishonest even if it wasn’t. The money didn’t go into his own pocket. In a desperate attempt to save his career, he has paid back much more than £7,000 and spent another £40,000 on lawyers.

Liberal Democrat MP David Laws was recently restored to the cabinet, having, apparently, suffered enough for incorrectly claiming more than £40,000 – almost six times as much as MacShane’s £7,000. Laws, like MacShane, did not do it for gain. He didn’t need the money, for Laws, unlike MacShane, is a very rich man. He wouldn’t cross the road for £7,000.

So how come Laws sits demurely on the government benches, and MacShane risks sitting in a prison cell? The clue lies in the identities of the people who have been screaming for MacShane’s blood, and whose pressure has forced the police to reopen their investigations.

They are led by right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes, whose delight that he may be able to get the hated MacShane locked up is revolting in its slavering vindictiveness. Hearing the news, Fawkes asked: "Is it too early to open the champagne on a Monday morning?"

He and several right-wing Tories are desperate to see MacShane locked up. Why? The answer lies in a piece by the relatively civilised europhobe Daniel Hannan (who, to his credit, hasn’t joined the lynch mob.) He wrote after MacShane resigned from Parliament: "Who will the BBC find to defend Brussels on air? Seriously – who?" Right now that’s a question that matters rather a lot.

Vengeful right-wing bigots like Guido Fawkes hate him, not because of his expenses, but because he is – or was - easily the most fluent and authoritative advocate for the EU.

Former Europe minister Denis MacShane, who resigned as Labour MP for Rotherham last year. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.