Lawson's EU intervention is a preview of the Tory war to come

If, as Lawson predicts, Cameron's renegotiation strategy fails, the Tory party will suffer its worst split since the reform of the Corn Laws.

There is a significant body of opinion in the Conservative Party that will not be satisfied until David Cameron finally supports what they really crave: unilateral withdrawal from the EU. That group has now won its most significant recruit in the form of Nigel Lawson. In a 2,000 word essay in today's Times, the fomer Tory chancellor writes that the EU has become "a bureaucratic monstrosity" that imposes "substantial economic costs" on its members, and that "the case for exit is clear". Having voted in favour of membership in the 1975 referendum, Lawson declares that he will vote "out" in 2017. 

For Cameron, already struggling to fend off demands for an early EU "mandate referendum" after UKIP's performance in the county council elections, the intervention could not come at a worse time. The Prime Minister's strategy is premised on the belief that the UK can use the euro crisis to repatriate major powers from Brussels, but Lawson warns that he is doomed to fail. In the most damaging section of the piece, Thatcher's former chancellor writes "that that any changes that Mr Cameron — or, for that matter, Ed Miliband — is able to secure" will be "inconsequential". He points out that the changes that Harold Wilson (who similarly renegotiated Britain's membership before staging an in/out referendum) was able to secure were "so trivial that I doubt if anyone today can remember what they were". Cameron, he suggests, will do no better. 

Lawson's piece is a reminder of why the EU referendum has the potential to result in the biggest Conservative split since the reform of the Corn Laws. Around a third of Tory MPs (by Tim Montgomerie's estimate) are committed to supporting withdrawal, with more likely to join them if, as Lawson predicts, Cameron fails to secure significant concessions. Cabinet ministers, including Michael Gove and Eric Pickles, have already signalled that they will vote to leave the EU unless Britain's membership is substantially reformed.

The question that will again be put to Cameron is that which shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander has continually asked: what percentage of your demands do you need to secure to support a Yes vote? 30 per cent, 50 per cent, 80 per cent? The PM's response is to say that no one goes into a negotiation "hoping and expecting to fail" but Lawson's pessimistic forecast will sharpen the debate. At a time when the Tories would do well to take Cameron's earlier advice to "stop banging on about Europe", the two Nigels - Farage and Lawson - have ensured that they will do little else. 

Former Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson warns that any concessions David Cameron wins from the EU will be "inconsequential". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.