Another influential Tory joins the No Fear of Brexit brigade

Andrea Leadsom, No 10 advisor and co-founder of the Fresh Start group of MPs, raises prospect of "more fruitful" negotiations after Britain votes to leave the EU.

What would happen if a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union went ahead and a majority voted to leave? No-one knows for sure, although one outcome that can be ruled out is Britain’s immediate exit from the club.

The UK’s economic and legal integration with its European partners is too intimate to allow a prompt severance of ties. Instead, the long process of negotiated disentanglement – and, presumably, some selective commercial re-entanglement – would begin.

The prospect of that post-referendum discussion is now being raised by an influential Tory backbencher and supporter of David Cameron’s renegotiation policy as reason to be relaxed about an “out” vote. “If Britain votes to leave the EU, we haven’t left: we start negotiations,” says Andrea Leadsom, co-chair of the Fresh Start group of Conservative MPs who campaign for a radical reconfiguration of Britain’s relations with Brussels. “That set of negotiations to leave may even be more fruitful than the negotiations before the referendum.”

Leadsom’s intervention is significant in a number of ways. Fresh Start are tacitly licensed by Downing Street to meet senior continental politicians and diplomats, preparing the case for renegotiated membership and exploring what is viable. David Cameron’s ambition for a new deal to be ratified in a referendum is exclusive to the Tory side of the coalition, meaning it is not official government policy so not something Foreign Office officials can work towards. But Cameron’s target date for the plebiscite is 2017. If renegotiation cannot begin in earnest until a putative election victory in 2015, there won’t be much time to get a deal. Hence No10 backing for Conservative MPs to engage in path-finding diplomacy. Leadsom told Bloomberg last year that she was “warmly encouraged” in her work.

It is revealing, then, that she now talks about the referendum and a possible “no” vote as just a staging post on the road to a transformed relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe. She makes a comparison with the vote on Scottish independence later this year, in which it is widely accepted that the pro-union side will not seriously negotiate divorce terms before the votes are counted. “What we fail to consider is what ‘out’ really means,” says Leadsom. “A vote in the Scotland referendum to leave doesn’t mean Scotland has left. There’s a whole further negotiation.”

Leadsom is also a member of the Downing Street policy board – a position that, in No10’s view, carries line-toeing responsibility broadly equivalent to the message-discipline expected of ministers. Leadsom makes it clear that her comments do not necessarily conflict with the Prime Minister’s stated goal of securing an “in” vote. “These are the questions that need to be asked,” she adds. “There’s a strong case for staying in a profoundly reformed EU, because of the potential of a globally competitive trade bloc.”

Yet the implication is also clear that an “out” vote need not be disastrous – and it is a central contention of the pro-EU side of the debate that it would be a catastrophe. Cameron has never declared himself quite that relaxed about Britain potentially rejecting EU membership. He shields himself with confidence that the deal he can eventually strike will obviate that risk. But in Tory circles the “no fear” position is an important badge of authentic scepticism, signalling potential readiness to vote to leave the EU if the terms on offer are not sufficiently attractive.

Establishing what those terms might be is central to the work done by Fresh Start. Leadsom also has a piece on the Mail Online today in which she concedes that many other European politician are wary of Tory scepticism, while insisting that common ground can be found. (Fresh Start is co-hosting a conference on EU reform at which George Osborne is due to speak tomorrow.) Last November Fresh Start published a Mandate for Reform, setting out a blueprint for future relations with Brussels. It posits significant extensions of national vetoes and withdrawal from areas of collaboration in social and criminal justice that are considered by most EU governments to be integral to the project and not subject to negotiation. The document builds on the Manifesto for Change that that was published days before Cameron first made his referendum pledge and which contained a supportive introduction by William Hague.

Pro-Europeans very much doubt that anything like the scale of change envisaged by Fresh Start can be agreed soon – certainly not between a general election in 2015 and a referendum in 2017. Their view is that not enough national governments are interested in rule revisions that would necessarily involve re-opening established treaties or drafting a new treaty, which in turn would provoke competing demands for concessions and possibly trigger referendums in countries whose constitutions demand it. (For a sober pro-EU account of how little Cameron can reasonably expect to achieve it is worth reading this piece by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, from last December.)

The Tory sceptics see that kind of language as defeatism. The whole point of the referendum, they argue, is to force Britain’s European counterparts to stare “Brexit” in the face, realise the UK’s departure is not in their interests and start talking in earnest about radical reform.

Diplomats and officials in Brussels warn that such a strategy is counterproductive and risks testing to breaking point tolerance of British exceptionalism. Senior Commission officials mutter darkly about blackmail, but Conservative backbenchers don’t worry too much about hurting the feeling of Commissioners, seeing them mostly as corrupt agents of an unacceptable EU status quo. There is now palpable impatience on the Conservative benches for signals that Cameron has drastic upheaval in mind. 95 Tory MPs have signed a letter calling for a parliamentary right of veto over European laws so sweeping as to amount, in essence, to a repudiation of membership of the union in anything like its current form.

This gambit reinforces the concerns of Conservative moderates that hardliners are using the vagueness of Cameron’s current renegotiation prospectus as a ratchet to move the party into an ever more sceptical position.  (This blog by the BBC’s James Landale has an instructive taxonomy of signatories to the letter.)

Where the balance of opinion in the Conservative party really lies is hard to guage. A minority is explicitly signed up to the view that the UK is “better off out” under any circumstances. There is also a much smaller cadre of eager pro-European opinion in the parliamentary party. That leaves the bulk of MPs, a couple of hundred by most Westminster reckoning, in the middle. They take the view that Britain’s relations with Brussels as currently configured are unpalatable to most voters - and indefensible in local Tory associations - but not entirely beyond repair. (There is an interesting attempt by the think tank Civitas to plot Tory MPs on a spectrum of scepticism here)

Cameron’s referendum pledge was thus temporarily effective as a device for holding the Tories together but it left two vital questions unanswered - gaps that the Fresh Start project set out to fill. The first was whether other European capitals would be supportive enough of the Tory position for renegotiation to look like a credible foreign policy rather than a short-term device  for party management. The second is what scale of reform might enable Conservative MPs to feel able – having consulted their consciences and their constituents – to advocate a “Yes to EU” position. After all, the Prime Minister’s stated ambition is still to get to a place where most Tories think Britain is “better off in.” That looks like an increasingly tall order if even Fresh Starters, the official outriders for Cameron’s renegotiation, suggest the most fruitful talks might turn out to be the ones that would follow an “out” vote in 2017.

David Cameron speaking in January 2013, pledging a referendum. 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