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.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.