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

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