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

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David Cameron’s speech: a hymn to liberalism from a liberated PM

The Prime Minister spoke with the confidence of a man who finally has a full mandate for his approach. 

At every one of his previous nine Conservative conference speeches, David Cameron has had to confront the doubters. Those Tories who rejected his modernisation of the party from the start. Those who judged it to have failed when he fell short of a majority in 2010. Those, including many in his own party, who doubted that he could improve on this performance in 2015. Today, rather than confronting the doubters, he was able to greet the grateful. As the first majority Conservative prime minister for 18 years, he rightly savoured his moment. "Why did all the pollsters and pundits get it so wrong?" he asked. "Because, fundamentally, they didn't understand the people who make up our country. The vast majority of people aren't obsessives, arguing at the extremes of the debate. Let me put it as simply as I can: Britain and Twitter are not the same thing." Labour should pin that line to its profile. 

With a full mandate for his approach, Cameron went on to deliver his most unashamedly liberal speech to date. Early on in his address, he spoke with pride of how "social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world's poorest" were now "at the centre of the Conservative Party's mission". A lengthy section on diversity, lamenting how "people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names", was greeted with a standing ovation. Proof, if needed, of how Cameron has changed his party beyond recognition. The former special adviser to Michael Howard, who avowed that "prison works", told his audience that prison too often did not. "The system is still not working ... We have got to get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this." From now on, he declared, the system, would "treat their [prisoners'] problems, educate them, put them to work." 

There were, of course, oversights and lacuna. Cameron reaffirmed his commitment to a budget surplus but glossed over the unprecedented, and many believe undeliverable, that will be required to achieve it (and which may fail to do so). He hailed the new "national living wage" with no mention of the tax credit cuts that will leave the same "strivers" worse off. His "affordable" starter homes will be unaffordable for average-earning families in 58 per cent of local areas. But it is a mark of Cameron's political abilities that it was easy to forget much of this as he spoke. Like George Osborne, he deftly appropriated the language of the left ("social justice", "opportunity", "diversity", "equality") to describe the policies of the right. Cameron is on a mission to claim ownership of almost every concept associated with Labour. The opposition should not sleep easily as he does so. 

There was little mention of Labour in the speech, and no mention of Jeremy Corbyn by name. But when the attack came, it was ruthlessly delivered. "Thousands of words have been delivered about the new Labour leader. But you only really need to know one thing: he thinks the death of Osama bin Laden was a 'tragedy'". The description of Corbyn as the "new Labour leader" shows the Tories' ambition to permanently contaminate the party, rather than merely the man.

There are plenty of potential landmines ahead for Cameron. The comically lukewarm applause for his defence of EU membership was a reminder of how divided his party is on this issue. But today, he spoke as a man liberated. Liberated by winning a majority. Liberated by not having to fight an election again. Like a second-term US president, he was able to speak of how he was entering "the second half of my time in this job". Tributes to Osborne (the "Iron Chancellor) and Boris Johnson (greeted with a remarkable standing ovation) alluded to the contest to come. But whoever succeeds him can be confident of assuming a party in good health - and more at ease with the modern world than many ever thought possible. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.