Cameron has not only lost control of his party, he has lost sight of the national interest

The chaos in the Conservative Party is a distraction from the real priorities for people across the country: jobs, growth and living standards.

David Cameron had a difficult week - with over 100 of his own MPs rebelling over Europe - but he should listen to the wise advice of former Tory foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, who savaged his approach to Europe in an article for the Observer.

Given the other headlines - a new low for the PM as "loongate" dominates - the broadside from Lord Howe must almost have felt like light relief. But it comes from the man whose gentle but deadly attack on Margaret Thatcher's approach to Europe marked the point when she lost control of her own party.

Geoffrey Howe is right that the UK's EU membership is "a key point of leverage for this country in the modern world." He is also right to underline that the Conservative leadership is "running scared of its own backbenchers".

During a week in which David Cameron hoped for positive headlines about his visit to the United States, the Tory civil war on Europe at home left his leadership in tatters. It was ironic that while many in his party were calling for the UK to leave the EU, including two of his own cabinet ministers, he was discussing the great benefits of an EU-US free trade agreement with President Obama.

The joke in Westminster last week among Tory MPs was that they did not need to worry about acting against the leadership because it was only a matter of 24 or 48 hours before their position would become Conservative party policy. The rushed publication of a private member's bill order by the PM from across the Atlantic was designed to quash the Tory rebellion on the eurosceptic amendment lamenting the absence in the Queen's Speech of legislation for an in-out referendum. Yet 116 Tory MPs rebelled anyway, effectively declaring that they don't trust their party leader to deliver.

The last seven days are only the latest demonstration of what Howe aptly describes as the "ratchet-effect of Euroscepticism". Cameron thought that his promise in January to hold an in/out referendum at some point in the next four years would satisfy the eurosceptic beast in his party, but it hasn't.

The real lesson of the local elections, and of the UKIP surge, however, is that sections of the electorate are distrustful of mainstream politicians and are concerned above all about jobs, immigration and welfare. The disappointing and worrying unemployment figures published last Wednesday were drowned out by the Conservative row on Europe. The government needs to get a grip and focus on getting the economy on track.

Our EU membership is crucial to our future prosperity. As Howe underlines, given the UK's three per cent share of global GDP and one per cent share of the world's population, the UK's EU membership magnifies our voice in the world, economically and diplomatically.

The CBI's director general John Cridland was right to stress last week that leaving the EU would be bad for British business. Shrinking our domestic market from 500 to 60 million consumers simply does not make sense. The EU also gives us greater weight and bargaining power in free trade negotiations with big and emerging economies. Foreign direct investment, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries, is attracted to our shores because we are a gateway to the world's largest single market.

The arrest of one of Britain's most wanted fugitives in Spain last week also served as a reminder that our EU membership is vital to the fight against organised crime and other challenges, like climate change, that are impossible for us to tackle alone.

Last week's chaos in the Conservative Party was a distraction from the real priorities for people across the country: jobs, growth and living standards. As Howe points out, it is the national interest, not party management or political advantage, which should guide decisions about our membership of the EU. Cameron has not only lost control of his party, he has also lost sight of the national interest. It falls to Labour to act responsibly, make a pragmatic and positive case for our continued EU membership and warn against the dangers of sleep-walking towards exit.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference at the EU headquarters on February 8, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Emma Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and former shadow Europe minister. She sits on the committee for exiting the European Union. 

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