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Cameron’s Steeplechase by Moonlight

Last Updated: Friday, December 9th, 2011

The core of the argument for Britain’s EU membership is that we must be at the heart of Europe to enjoy prosperity and influence.  The heart of Europe is now set to be the 17, not the 27 – or, to be strictly accurate, perhaps more than 17 (perhaps as many as 26) or perhaps less (maybe a Bratwurst Euro in which Germany leads and France follows.)

The key question about Britain’s relationship with the Europe arising from the Prime Minister’s momentous veto of a new EU treaty is: if we’re not going to be in the 17, what’s the point of staying in the 27 – on present terms, anyway?

This question is already being put by Conservative Euro-sceptics: John Baron has done so on ConservativeHome today.  They are like a man in a restaurant who isn’t satisfied by being given one item from a menu – in this case, Cameron’s dramatic veto – but instantly demand to be served more.

Assuming that there isn’t a sudden EU compromise on protection for the City – after all, current events are nothing if not utterly unpredictable – here are some of the pressure points in the short-term and the medium:

Simmering Liberal Democrat tensions.  Nick Clegg has made a muted statement regretting the lack of a deal among the 27 and saying that as a pro-European he will continue to make his case within the Government.  Vince Cable has stayed onside. But senior Liberal Democrats – especially the older ones in the House of Lords who have dedicated their lives to the European cause (such as Shirley Williams and Paddy Ashdown) and the party’s Euro-enthusiast MEPs in Brussels (such as Chris Davies, who this morning attacked the Prime Minister for “xenophobia”) are or will be unhappy.  Last night’s events pose a bigger question: if the Liberal Democrats are joined to their Coalition partner on deficit reduction but separated to date by EU policy, couldn’t the natural course now be for the former to be absorption into the latter – as happened to the old Liberal Party twice during the last century?

Escalating Tory Euro-sceptic demands
.  Cameron will enter the Chamber on Monday to a blizzard of waving order papers.  The small band of Tory Euro-enthusiasts – mostly concentrated among the older Conservative MPs – are being swept along by the tide: no Tory MP will argue that a Conservative Prime Minister should have connived in the weakening of the City.  That tide is sweeping in the direction I describe – towards fundamental renegotiation.  There are personal as well as policy differences between MPs who support withdrawal, such as Douglas Carswell, ones committed to major renegotiation, such as Bill Cash, and those who to date have backed the gradual repatriation of powers, such as the Fresh Start Group, but the logic of events is for all them to press for further action on repatriating power, and for a referendum.

Desperate Labour manoevering.  At a stoke, Ed Miliband has been deprived of the glittering political prospect of Cameron returning to Britain having signed a Treaty without any repatriation of power – leading to a Commons Bill, more revolts, amendments demanding a referendum, even (as was being claimed yesterday) a possible leadership challenge: all in all, a crisis for the Prime Minister which the Labour leader could exploit, as his predecessor John Smith exploited Conservative divisions over the Maastricht Treaty some 20 years ago.  Labour’s best shot is probably to argue that the veto wouldn’t have had to be wielded if Cameron had got his diplomacy right – and then blame the Prime Minister for the economic mayhem wrought by the break-up of the Euro, if it happens.

Cameron’s position buttressed.
  Cameron may be isolated abroad but he is strengthened at home today – and the two are related to each other.  A treaty would have meant a Commons bill and a referendum vote – and perhaps a leadership challenge.  The absence of one denies his Tory critics and opponents the most likely means of hemming him in or even bringing him down.  A curious paradox is at work: the more the Prime Minister bows to these critics, the more freedom he may have gradually to isolate them.  A Cameron more secure in his position will be better able to marginalise or sack critical Ministers (such as Owen Paterson and Chris Grayling) and reward and promote his allies.  He has no Conservative leadership rival in the Commons – and his summit stance will help close down the options of the one outside, Boris Johnson.

In Robert Blake’s biography of Disraeli, he illustrates the latter’s opportunistic manoevres over the 1867 reform bill with the thrilling but alarming image of a steeplechase by moonlight.

Cameron won’t look at the course before him with the exhilaration that Blake ascribes to the Tory MPs of the day.  Sources say that the mood at Number 10 is downbeat, not upbeat: Downing Street wanted a treaty.

What motivated the Prime Minister to cast Britain’s veto?  Some will say it was a deep recognition that the City could not be allowed to be threatened.  Others will claim that Cameron was desperate to avoid a referendum vote (or a leadership challenge).

During the run-up to the AV referendum, he came to see that his position was threatened if his energies weren’t thrown into the No campaign, and he acted decisively.  He certainly did so again last night.

And though he may not feel any of the excitement of his nineteenth century predecessors, he is now no less on a moonlight steeplechase than they were, with all its thrills, starts, obstacles, and sudden fences: after all, the fate of the Euro is still unclear.

By Paul Goodman



Tim Montgomerie: Cameron’s big opportunity to bring the Conservative family together
“I hope Number 10 recognises the significance of this moment. I predict something that doesn’t happen very often and that’s a very good press in tomorrow’s Mail, Sun, Telegraph and Express. There now needs to be a sustained campaign to build on this moment. “Sustained” is not something Team Cameron has always been good at. It loses interest in things too quickly. The follow up to the summer’s riots, for example, decayed very quickly. Over the weekend the inner team should be sitting down and planning next steps. One of these steps should include a big picture speech from Cameron, setting out his vision of Britain and Europe.” Read more:

Paul Goodman: Grayling, Howarth and Villiers join IDS and Paterson in telling Cameron to toughen up:  “A group of senior Ministers including Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson sought to meet the Prime Minister during the run-up to today’s Brussels summit to urge him to harden his stance on the repatriation of powers. The group features Chris Grayling, the Employment Minister in Duncan Smith’s Work and Pensions Department; Gerald Howarth, the Defence Minister and former Chairman of the 92 Group, and Theresa Villiers, the Transport Minister. Senior sources say that no meeting took place before the Prime Minister prepared to leave for the summit, but that one is very likely to take place after it returns.  A list of Ministers has been prepared for members of the group to approach.” Read More:

Anthony Browne: National pay bargaining is already fraying at the edges:  “The union barons will never admit it, but much of their opposition is based on the fact that scrapping national pay bargaining deprives them of their pivotal national role. They can hardly call a national strike over local pay disputes, which will rarely make national newspaper headlines. But whatever the outcome of the review, it is clear that national wage bargaining is already starting to fray at the edges. The government’s reforms in education and health – in particular the expansion of academies, the creation of free schools and the moves to GP fund-holding – all give greater local discretion to the setting of pay and conditions.  One way or another, it seems unlikely that national pay bargaining will have the same importance in the future as it had in the past.” Read more:

Bruce Anderson: If you believe fiscal union would work, you must also believe in Santa Claus:  “I hope that I am wrong, but my guess is that this week’s summit will find a way of postponing the crisis, to such an extent the Eurozone leaders will be able to claim that the problem is solved, because everyone has signed up to full fiscal union. If so, that would be a disaster; a brutal assault on the hopes and life-chances of tens of millions of Europeans; a condemnation of struggling countries – with no tradition of political stability – to mass unemployment and social unrest. It would sap Europe’s life-blood. It would sentence our continent, which could still be a considerable, even indispensable force for good to further, perhaps terminal, decline.” Read more:

Stewart Jackson MP: The Government cannot afford another “cast iron guarantee” moment: “The Prime Minister has a good deal of support for his stated aims of adhering to the election manifesto on which all Conservative MPs were elected – and not just to draw a marker, or even the proverbial line in the sand, but to take out of mothballs the Thatcher handbag used by the Iron Lady at Fontainebleau in 1984, which won back the UK its much-needed budget rebate, and to repatriate substantive powers which are ours and were merely lent to our EU partners. All eyes will be on David Cameron as EU Council meets on Friday. I hope and believe that he will rise to the challenge and make good the pledges he made to the House of Commons on 24th October.” Read more:

Dominic Raab MP: Tomorrow night, MPs can put extradition reform on the agenda:  “For those who believe in standing up for our core liberties – and basic standards of British justice – extradition reform is an acid test. I have written elsewhere about the case for reform of the European Arrest Warrant and the arrangements under the UK-US treaty. A rising number of our citizens, many manifestly innocent, are being subjected to rough justice – like the appalling treatment of Andrew Symeou, Deborak Dark and Michael Turner. On Monday night, MPs have an opportunity to do something about it. The motion calls on the government to introduce legislative proposals to enact the basic safeguards recommended by the Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR), rather than accept the ‘do nothing’ counsel of the Baker review.” Read more:

Andrew Lilico: The Government is stealing the property of ex-public sector workers:  “Let’s instead focus upon people who used to be public sector workers, but left the public sector some time ago and have not yet retired (to make things concrete, imagine some aged 52 who worked for the public sector from age 25 to 45).  This group of people aren’t involved in any grand implicit agreement whereby they accept a cut in the value of their already-accrued pensions in exchange for not having their pay cut.  These people simply have some property — their pension entitlement.  And the government is taking away some of their property, by ceasing to uprate their pensions at the rate previously agreed (RPI) and now switching to a lower rate (CPI). Why aren’t Conservatives more up in arms about this blatant attack on property rights?” Read more:

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