Cameron says "renegotiation", Conservative MPs hear "exit"

The Prime Minister's European strategy relies on an act of persuasion that he has proved himself incapable of pulling off.

No-one needs any more evidence that many Tory MPs don’t trust what their leader when he says when it comes to the European Union (or much else). If they did, they would have accepted his pledge in January that a referendum would be held in 2017, once the terms of British membership of the club have been renegotiated - and presuming Cameron is still prime minister after the next election.

But Conservative MPs have found that a Cameron promise doesn’t impress Ukip-minded voters on the doorstep and they struggle to defend their leader’s pledge-keeping credentials. (Members of the PM's entourage calling the activist base "swivel-eyed loons" is not going to quickly thaw relations between the leadership and the grass roots.) Hence the insistence on a bill this side of an election, restating the determination to put EU membership up for a national vote. Number 10 agreed to back such a move out of desperation to prove that the Prime Minister meant what he said back in January.

And no doubt he did. But there are two parts to Cameron’s EU strategy. The referendum is supposed to follow the renegotiation. Much more media coverage and political energy has been consumed on the promise of a vote than on the practicality of getting a good deal out of Britain’s European partners. It is worth noting, for example, that Nigel Lawson’s recent intervention on the subject attracted a great deal of attention because he said he would vote to quit the EU. Less remarked upon was the reason he gave as to why he can be so sure of that decision already. He doesn’t think renegotiation will work. And he’s right.

As I’ve written before, it is almost impossible to imagine Cameron securing a compromise on the UK’s current level of European integration that would satisfy his party because, almost by definition, compromise in Brussels is perceived as capitulation. The EU exists to facilitate cross-border collaboration at a political and not just an economic level and that process is what affronts the sensibilities of the sceptics.

I offer here one modest proof of how phenomenally hard it will be for Cameron to concoct a European settlement to satisfy his members. Writing in the Times last week, Robert Halfon, MP for Harlow in Essex, got stuck into the big oil companies for alleged price fixing. Halfon is a very effective constituency MP, a clever man and a popular figure on the Tory benches. He has been very influential in pushing the sensible idea that Conservatives should be focused on the cost of living and addressing more directly the concerns of working and lower-middle-class voters. He has campaigned on the issue of fuel costs with considerable success. He is respected on both sides of parliament. So what does this have to do with Europe? Halfon explains half-way through the piece:

We need regulators who are hungry for justice, and who have the right powers to pursue it. The Office of Fair Trading should have been pushing the European Commission to investigate, rather than holding last year’s spineless inquiry that came to almost no useful conclusions. Real EU renegotiation would mean bringing these investigatory powers back to Britain.

Halfon is dismayed that British competition authorities appeared to be asleep on the job, leaving it up to the European Commission to get tough on the oil giants. His solution is the repatriation of powers from Brussels. As far as I am aware this doesn’t appear on any list of realistic demands that Cameron might make of his European partners. The UK is subject to European competition law because we are in a single market and because British businesses want a level playing field when trading or merging with businesses in other countries and acquiring assets there. Even if we left the EU, British enterprises that wanted to engage in international commerce would comply with European competition law.

If Tory MPs want the OFT and the UK competition commission (which are in the process of being combined) to be tougher, are they supposed to be more rigorous in the enforcement of European rules? That is a question of greater zeal not repatriation of powers? Or are they supposed to apply some different, yet-to-be-drafted laws? In that case UK companies operating in the rest of Europe would have to comply with two sets of rules instead of one?

But the whole question is purely academic. Cameron will not put powers of competition regulation on his list of things to bring home from Brussels. He knows – if indeed he’s thought about it at all – that it can’t be done. So when Halfon says “real EU renegotiation” he means “impossible, fantasy renegotiation.” Or, put another way, by “renegotiation” he means “exit.” That is what most Tories now seem to mean by renegotiation.

The message from the Conservative party to their leader is clear. There is really nothing he can practically do or say that will persuade them to vote “yes” to the question of whether Britain should remain in the EU. Yet Cameron’s entire strategy hinges on accomplishing that act of persuasion.

David Cameron stands alone in Brussels. Source: Getty

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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