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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Chi Onwurah MP: I did not want to vote for Trident - but I did

I do believe the use of nuclear weapons is immoral, but there is more to consider than that.

I did not want to vote for the renewal of Trident. I don’t like voting with the Tories, I don’t want to legitimise a dialogue of death and I’d much, much prefer to vote for investment in schools and education than weapons of mass destruction. 

The fact that I’d recently returned from a commemorating the Centenary of the Somme with veterans of the Tyneside Battalions  had highlighted, again, both the horror and the futility of war. 

As friends in Newcastle and colleagues in Parliament can testify, I spent the days leading up to the vote asking for views. I read constituents’ emails on the subject as well as the (many) briefings. I studied the motion  in detail and listened carefully to the arguments of colleagues who were voting against Trident. 

I did not want to vote for Trident. But I did. Why?

The first duty of Government is to protect its citizens. That is a duty I take very seriously. Like all of my colleagues on the Labour benches, I am committed to the twin goals of a safe and secure United Kingdom and a world free of nuclear weapons. In both 2010 and in 2015 I was elected on manifestos that pledged we would retain the minimum necessary nuclear deterrent, whilst at the same time working towards reducing and eradicating nuclear weapons. Last year, Party members reaffirmed that policy at conference. However the Leader of my party and some of my frontbench colleagues voted against that position. 

For me there were four key questions – cost, effectiveness, morality and making the world safer.

1. Cost

Whilst there is not enough transparency on cost, the SNP and Green Party estimates of  up to £200bn double count all kinds of in-service costs, most of which would also be applicable to  any conventional replacement.  The estimate of between £30 to 40bn over 35 years seemed to me most credible. And this does not include the benefits of the 30,000 jobs that depend on building submarines - either directly or in the supply chain - or the value to the engineering and manufacturing sector that they represent. That is why my union, Unite, backed renewal. That is why EEF, the manufacturing association, backed renewal. If Trident were not renewed, the money saved would not go on the NHS, no more than our EU membership fee will.  We are a very unequal nation, but we are also a rich one - we should be able to maintain our defence capability and invest in a welfare system and the NHS.  

2. Effectiveness 

I read many reports citing cyber insecurity and potential drone attacks, but the evidence convinced me that, whilst these threats are real, they are not (yet) such as to significantly undermine effectiveness overall. Like Lisa Nandy, I was concerned about the apparently openended nature of the commitment to nuclear weapons but the motion did also emphasise disarmament. Jeremy Corbyn’s argument that nuclear weapons were ineffective because they did not deter the Rwandan genocide,  I found more difficult to follow. 

3. Morality 

This was for me perhaps the strongest argument agains renewal. It is one rarely articulated. Many hide behind cost and effectiveness when they believe nuclear weapons are immoral. 

I am not a conscientious objector  but I have a great deal of respect for those who are, and I do believe the use of nuclear weapons is immoral. 

But if you accept the concept of armed defence and believe in taking armed action to protect UK or global citizens, then the unilateral disarmament argument seems to resolve into 1) hiding behind the American deterrent 2) that it will make the world safer, or 3) that it doesn’t matter whether we end up in thermonuclear destruction as long as our hands are clean. The first and the third I do not accept.

4. A safer world

This was the question I ended up wrestling with.  Caroline Lucas’ argument that having nuclear weapons encourages other countries to use them would have been an excellent one to make back in 1948. The question now is not whether or not we have them -  we do -  but whether or not we get rid of them, unilaterally.

A world free of nuclear weapons needs countries like the UK to take a lead. It needs stability, balance, and a predictable pace of weapons reductions. It takes years of negotiations. I am proud of my party’s record on nuclear disarmament. The previous Labour Government was the first nuclear-armed power in the world to commit to the goal of a world free from nuclear weapons. We made the decision to decommission all land and air launched missiles. We did it unilaterally, setting an example. But nobody followed.

Working with other countries in recent decades, we have halved our own nuclear stockpiles and the US and Russia have reduced their warheads from 60,000 to 16,000 and that is expected to halve again by 2022. The evidence is clear that multilateralism works, although this Government has yet to demonstrate its commitment. 

So would Britain declaring that it was not going to renew Trident make the world, and the UK, safer? Would it tend to stabilise or destabilise? I spent hours debating that. I considered Britain on the road to Brexit with a new Prime Minister with no plan and an absent Labour leader, Europe between fear of migration and disintegration, Russia at bay, the Turkey coup, Israeli-Iranian relations, the Republican party’s candidate for President and the reality that terrorist massacres are a regular feature all over the world. I thought about my constituents, would declaring that Labour was against Trident make them feel safer and more secure?

My conclusion was that it would not make the world more stable and it would not make my constituents feel more secure.

And so I voted.