Will Cameron suspend collective responsibility over the EU?

If Ken Clarke is free to put the europhile case, eurosceptics will want to be able to argue for withdrawal.

After Michael Heseltine's intervention at the weekend, today it's the turn of the europhiles' other big beast, Ken Clarke, to offer his two penn'orth on the Europe debate. In an interview with the FT, the former Justice Secretary, who now attends cabinet as a minister without portfolio, warns that David Cameron's plan to hold a referendum on a "new EU settlement" for Britain could unintentionally lead to withdrawal. He notes:

All referenda are a bit of a gamble. I don’t think we can take a Yes vote for granted.

I think one of the problems is, because so much of the media is overwhelmingly eurosceptic, no one has really campaigned very vigorously for the case for British leadership in the European Union for probably a decade or more.

The problem for Cameron is that the gap between what Tory MPs want from a renegotiation (see the list of demands issued by the Fresh Start group today) and what he can deliver is so great that he has set himself up for failure. As a result, he will find it harder to persuade his party and the public that Britain should remain in the EU when a referendum is held.

Elsewhere in the interview, Clarke, who has warned Cameron against seeking to use the eurozone crisis to repatriate powers from Brussels, bluntly compares those who support withdrawal to the "hangers and floggers" who demanded a referendum on capital punishment in the 1970s. "If you realise you’re doomed in parliament you demand a referendum – that’s what the hangers and floggers used to do," he says.

One issue that Clarke's fusillades against euroscepticism raise is whether collective ministerial responsibility applies to him. His plan to share a platform with Peter Mandelson to argue for full British engagement with the EU suggests not. In response, we can expect eurosceptics to ask whether those ministers who privately favour withdrawal should also be free to put their case.

As I noted earlier this week, the last time Britain held a referendum on the EU in 1975, Harold Wilson took the unusual step of suspending collective cabinet responsibility (as Cameron has over the boundary changes bill) in order to allow his ministers to support either side in the campaign. Seven Labour cabinet ministers - Benn, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, William Ross, Peter Shore John Silkin, Eric Varley - went on to unsuccessfully argue for withdrawal from the EEC (the vote was 67-33 in favour of membership). In this week's Spectator, James Forsyth reported that there are "at least nine Cabinet members" who would be inclined to vote "out" in a referendum if Cameron only proves able to secure minor concessions such as the exemption of the NHS from the Working Time Directive

We're a long way off from a referendum but expect Cameron to be asked as early as Friday whether he would allow Conservative cabinet ministers to campaign for exit.

Ken Clarke, who attends cabinet as a minister without portfolio, has argued that Britain should not seek to repatriate powers from the EU. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

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