Angela Merkel says changing free movement rules is the UK's "point of no return". Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What does Merkel's "red line" on EU migration rules mean for British politics?

Germany would sacrifice UK’s EU membership in order not to compromise the EU’s principle of free movement of workers. What are the political implications?

Angela Merkel has made some highly telling comments about the future of Britain’s EU membership.

The German magazine Der Spiegel reports that she would accept UK’s exit from the European Union in order not to compromise over the core principle of free movement of workers. This suggests that she would refuse David Cameron’s attempt at curbing the level of EU migrants entering Britain in any future renegotiation.

Reportedly, Merkel sees any attempted change to the freedom of movement rules as the “point of no return” for the UK’s EU membership. The Guardian reports that Merkel has warned Cameron about this, and that Downing Street has not denied that such a conversation took place.

What does this mean for British politics?


David Cameron

Comments like this make things very difficult for the Prime Minister. He has said that changing EU rules about migrants would be “at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe”.

But he hasn’t so far said that he would campaign for an Out vote in a future EU referendum if he doesn’t achieve the renegotiation he’s aiming for – partly because he needs to appear to have faith in his renegotiation, and mainly because he believes in the benefits of Britain’s EU membership.

The idea of Cameron being unable to achieve such a renegotiation – and therefore unable to curb immigration from EU member states to the UK – is what allows Ukip, disillusioned voters and his more eurosceptic backbenchers (and, privately, frontbenchers) to say he lacks credibility on the EU issue.


Tory backbenchers

Not all Conservative backbenchers, but many of the “awkward squad” eurosceptic and generally rebellious rightwingers, will use this as yet another opportunity to criticise their leadership for delaying an EU referendum until 2017, and waiting for a renegotiation which will not bring the changes they so desire. Indeed, many of them would prefer the renegotiation not to work so that the only option would be to leave the European Union.

However, the eurosceptics have always been troublemakers on the EU. What should be more worrying to the Tory leadership is those in the party with more nuanced views towards Europe seeing the PM lose further credibility in Brussels. One usually loyal Tory MP told me that, “no one believes him [David Cameron]” when he talks about calling a referendum, let alone achieving a beneficial renegotiation.

David Davis, an influential former Tory minister, and a eurosceptic MP who doesn’t call for outright departure from the EU, told the BBC’s Today programme this morning: “we should have started renegotiating much earlier. Both sides [anti-EU voices in Britain, and EU states who want Britain to stay] don’t really believe you when you really do mean it.”

Davis also said a “red line” for Britain “has got to be a change of the so-called free movement rules” and that concessions on benefit changes are “not enough”. He argued that Cameron should give a suggestion to Germany and the EU leadership that there is a prospect that Britain could leave, if they don’t compromise: “If you’re going to get the Europeans to take you seriously, you’ve got to hold out the prospect of leaving”. He revealed that there are “quite a few cabinet ministers who do believe that”.



One of the major factors behind Ukip shoring up the Tory vote in many constituencies is that it calls itself the only party that would take Britain out of the European Union. It has a very simply message: the Prime Minister would not be able to negotiate a curb on EU migrant levels, and the only way for him to do it would be to take the UK out of the European Union. Merkel’s comments give Ukip more ammunition when saying that Cameron’s planned renegotiation is impossible.



Although on the surface a weakened Prime Minister is Brussels provides an opportunity for the opposition to question his credibility, this isn’t good news for the Labour party.

Labour is the only main party that has not agreed to support an EU referendum – even the Greens would back one – and is serious about making the business case in favour of Britain’s membership, with its recent appointment of Pat McFadden MP as shadow Europe minister. Although there has been a dilemma among its MEPs and national party on its approach to defending UK in the EU, as I reported last week, the party does now acknowledge that it must up its game on this. Merkel’s comments make it harder for Labour to make a positive, but popular, case for remaining in the EU. The party must identify, and agree to solve, problems with Britain's membership if it makes it to government.

According to the respected MP and former Labour frontbencher Alan Johnson, Labour must be prepared to use its diplomacy to achieve its own renegotiation of the free movement rule. Johnson told me last week:

Away from the childish shenanigans of Cameron, who really hasn't learnt the ABC of negotiation, [we must] say we're the answer to solving some of those problems, including some of the issues around free movement, which in a proper dialogue amongst allies, without threats, I think we'd find a lot of support around Europe for changes to the system, now that there's 28 member states and not six. We have to make that argument without chasing a Ukip vote, trying to out-Ukip Ukip. We'll leave that to the Tories.

Labour articulating the need to achieve "reform within Europe", as voiced by shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander today, means that Merkel could just as easily refuse to compromise with a Labour leader attempting to renegotiate Britain's position in the EU.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Grant Shapps on the campaign trail. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Grant Shapps resigns over Tory youth wing bullying scandal

The minister, formerly party chairman, has resigned over allegations of bullying and blackmail made against a Tory activist. 

Grant Shapps, who was a key figure in the Tory general election campaign, has resigned following allegations about a bullying scandal among Conservative activists.

Shapps was formerly party chairman, but was demoted to international development minister after May. His formal statement is expected shortly.

The resignation follows lurid claims about bullying and blackmail among Tory activists. One, Mark Clarke, has been accused of putting pressure on a fellow activist who complained about his behaviour to withdraw the allegation. The complainant, Elliot Johnson, later killed himself.

The junior Treasury minister Robert Halfon also revealed that he had an affair with a young activist after being warned that Clarke planned to blackmail him over the relationship. Former Tory chair Sayeedi Warsi says that she was targeted by Clarke on Twitter, where he tried to portray her as an anti-semite. 

Shapps appointed Mark Clarke to run RoadTrip 2015, where young Tory activists toured key marginals on a bus before the general election. 

Today, the Guardian published an emotional interview with the parents of 21-year-old Elliot Johnson, the activist who killed himself, in which they called for Shapps to consider his position. Ray Johnson also spoke to BBC's Newsnight:


The Johnson family claimed that Shapps and co-chair Andrew Feldman had failed to act on complaints made against Clarke. Feldman says he did not hear of the bullying claims until August. 

Asked about the case at a conference in Malta, David Cameron pointedly refused to offer Shapps his full backing, saying a statement would be released. “I think it is important that on the tragic case that took place that the coroner’s inquiry is allowed to proceed properly," he added. “I feel deeply for his parents, It is an appalling loss to suffer and that is why it is so important there is a proper coroner’s inquiry. In terms of what the Conservative party should do, there should be and there is a proper inquiry that asks all the questions as people come forward. That will take place. It is a tragic loss of a talented young life and it is not something any parent should go through and I feel for them deeply.” 

Mark Clarke denies any wrongdoing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.