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MEET DAVID CAMERON’S NEW THINK-TANK ON EU POLICY

Last Updated: Friday, November 11th, 2011

Nature abhors a vacuum. Seldom is the saying more applicable than to the Government’s EU policy.

David Cameron won the short-term Commons battle over a referendum on Europe last month. But he is in danger of losing the longer-term struggle for the loyalty of his backbenchers. The EU is far from being the only cause of their discontents: disillusion with the Coalition’s compromises, frustration at limited promotion prospects, and dismay with pay and conditions (plus the constituency boundary review and reduction of seats) are other significant factors.

But a new EU treaty negotiation is the spark that could ignite this fertiliser bomb – much as the Maastricht Treaty did when the Conservatives last held office. The Tory leadership may be able to downplay European policy, which has wracked the party for over 20 years since Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech, when the party is in opposition or there is no new treaty to hand. When one looms, however, it cannot do so – let alone under the current crisis conditions in the Eurozone.

It is impossible to know how soon the Euro will break up and in what form. But the EU of the future will plainly be different to the EU of the past. This means negotiations. Which means that the British Government will be involved in them. Which means Conservative backbenchers and party members clamouring for the repatriation of powers when they occur. As a leading Euro-sceptic backbencher pointed out to me recently, precisely which powers is unclear.

This is the vacuum to which I refer. If the Government does not fill it, those backbenchers who believe that a renegotiation for repatriated powers is insufficient, and that Britain should withdraw from the EU altogether – perhaps between 20 and 50 – will do so. There is a danger for David Cameron that Conservative backbenchers will move one way, the Liberal Democrats the other -and that he will be stuck in the middle. This threatens the survival of the Government.

So what has Team Cameron’s response to last month’s vote been? Does it plan to fill the policy vacuum – and if so, how?

The Prime Minister has sought no rapprochement since the EU referendum vote with the 1922 Committee, the representative body of Tory backbenchers. Its leadership is firmly right-of-party-centre, and he sought to abolish it after the 2010 election. Relations between it and Downing Street are thus strained. William Hague isn’t taking a visible lead either. Some Euro-sceptic MPs blame him and the Foreign Office for not filling the vacuum in the first place.

That department’s line-to-take is that it is “examining the balance of competences in line with the Coalition Agreement”. Foreign Office sources hint that a repatriation of powers package is being examined. But it would be unwise to expect too much to come out of King Charles Street. In short, neither Number Ten not the Foreign Office are showing any sign of movement on powers repatriation on public. However, matters may be different in private.

There is no shortage of EU expertise on the Conservative backbenches. A few older MPs, such as Robert Walter, have a record of long engagement with European institutions and support the EU project. Some more recent arrivals – such as Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – are outspoken in their opposition to it and support for withdrawal. In between sit the MPs behind the Conservative Fresh Start initiative: George Eustice, Christopher Heaton-Harris, Andrea Leadsom.

Heaton-Harris heads up the European Research Group of MPs, previously run by former Conservative MP David Heathcoat-Amory. Leadsom is the joint Chairman of the new All-Party Parliamentary Group for European Reform. The Open Europe think-tank made a presentation at the group’s inaugural meeting yesterday – which Leadsom described on ConservativeHome this morning. It is claimed that money is being raised in the City to fund further research.

Could this nexus of groups fill that vacuum, and thus help solve Downing Street’s policy-making problem?

Their presence is certainly significant. Other MPs who favour the repatriation of powers (David Davis, John Redwood, Bill Cash) are no less expert, but they have neither the same research support nor the same comradely access to the half of the Parliamentary Party that is new – elected in 2010 as Leadsom and Heaton-Harris and Eustice were. If Fresh Start and Open Europe – which has a good campaigning record – can’t fill the vacuum, it is hard to see who else will.

The Leadsom/Heaton-Harris/Eustice nexus is in communication with the Foreign Office. It has also been into the Treasury recently. (Earlier this week, a Treasury-presented motion on future EU budget contributions was passed without a backbench rebel amendment – suggesting either that Tory backbenchers have had enough of rebellion for the moment, or are biding their time, or perhaps a bit of both.) It is bound to be in communication with Downing Street.

The Open Europe presentation to the new all-party group was about how social policy might be repatriated. Its next one will be on financial services. It is no coincidence that furthering the single market and protecting the City are two of David Cameron’s named EU policy priorities – nor that the repatriation of social and employment policy unites the Tories: John Major won an opt-out on the social chapter at Maastricht which Tony Blair abandoned.

Indeed, there have been indications that Nick Clegg might support a move to reinstate it (in effect). The Leadsom/Heaton-Harris/Eustice initiative can thus be seen as kind of think-tank for Ministers. The Guardian carried a story this morning suggesting that Cameron will seek only a “modest” repatriation of powers in a future negotiation. That word could fairly be used to describe one concentrated mainly on social and employment policy.

It is not hard to see where all this could go.

The Leadsom/Heaton-Harris/Eustice could research further power repatriations during the run-up to a new treaty. Cameron could adopt their social and employment plans, and tell his party that while these proposals may not be everything they want, they are at least a start – and that more will come in later treaty negotiations (and in the next Conservative manifesto). He would have a familiar bottom line in doing so: this is a Coalition Government, so Tories can’t have everything they want.

I am not sure that such a strategy would be enough to calm a party that grows more Euro-sceptic as each daily Eurozone drama shakes the continent. Nor might it satisfy the bolder spirits in the Fresh Start Group – which drew over 100 Conservative MPs to its first meeting. But a repatriation of powers policy based on social and employment policy and aspects of fishing and farming would at least fill the present vacuum. This is the direction Cameron is now travelling in.

By Paul Goodman

 

HIGHLIGHTS OF THE WEEK FROM CONSERVATIVEHOME

Andrea Leadsom MP: The work has begun on how we might repatriate powers from the EU
“The All-Party Parliamentary Group for European Reform duly had its first meeting yesterday and I was elected to be joint Chairman with Labour’s Thomas Docherty MP.  The membership includes MPs and Peers of all parties and of all attitudes to the EU, ranging from those who would withdraw altogether to those who wish to remain inside but recognise a need for real change. Our purpose is to set out and identify priority areas for the repatriation of powers and our challenge is to do this in a way that does not deprive us of access to the single market. The APPG will consider both the ‘what’ and the ‘how’.”  Read more: http://is.gd/yO9AbW

Chris Nicholson: Here’s how we can lift one million people out of income tax next April
“CentreForum estimates that putting a lower cap on pension lump sums could, over time, save £500million per annum. These measures alone would enable the government to raise the personal tax allowance to £10,000 per annum from next April. That would take over a million people out of tax altogether and increase the incentive for people to work rather than being on benefit. It would also boost demand in the economy, putting money back in the hands of those who are more likely to spend it. It might be a liberal idea – but like the mansion tax, it is an idea that Conservatives should take seriously.” Read more: http://is.gd/0OIO2d

Paul Goodman: A little local difficulty in the whips office – and 10 Downing Street
“There are good reports about individuals.  These include Stephen Crabb, Philip Dunne and Jeremy Wright…The duo at the top of the whips office, Patrick McLoughlin and John Randall, are experienced, shrewd and grasp the scale of the challenge. But there is bad report about the system as a whole – in particular, about the relationship between the whips office and Number 10.  Claims that it took a different view to Downing Street about whipping the EU referendum vote are vehemently denied.  But what matters most is less fact than perception: senior whips are not perceived by their colleagues as part of Cameron’s top team.” Read More: http://is.gd/M1kK8o

Anthony Browne: Why is the Home Office cutting the Border Agency – which is meant to pay its own way?
“The aim used to be that the [immgration] service is self-financing – that the charges to immigrants and visitors pay for the cost of border control (with some exceptions, such as asylum). This is under the general principle that immigrants and other visitors should cover their own costs, and not expect to be subsidised by the taxpayer. The Home Office obviously needs to make cuts, but it seems non-sensical to make them to a service that is meant to be paying its own way. The Home Office always had the more politically digestible alternative of closing any funding gap that exists by raising fees.” Read More: http://is.gd/jY5XXR

Tim Montgomerie: Rebooting Project Cameron: Cameron needs a new big message
“In the MajorityConservatism project I suggest we change our compassionate message to a very simple one of family, education and jobs.  By 87% to 17%, Tory members said that they would prefer that shift. MajorityConservatism.com sets out other changes too…Again and again in a survey of 2,000 Tory members these shifts were approved by overwhelming majorities. Whenever I speak to Tory MPs, local associations or conservative commentators the same feedback is received. Much residual loyalty to David Cameron but exasperation with his stances on growth, compassion and Europe. Of all the changes discussed today – a new, big picture narrative is the most important.” Read More: http://is.gd/drASuq

David Davies MP: Leave the St Paul’s protesters in their tents – clearing them would cause more trouble than it’s worth
“A debate now rages across the press between those who support the protestors and those who want to kick them off St Paul’s. I wish to offer a truly alternative voice. What about those who don’t support the protesters but don’t think its worth kicking them off either? Nobody should have the right to park their tents on a piece of ground and remove everyone else’s right to use it…But if, after a long and expensive court battle, the protesters are ordered to leave we know what will happen. Their numbers will suddenly swell as violent agitators join them…So let us just put up with the slight eyesore and the minor inconvenience of this demonstration. Let them have their fun.” Read More: http://is.gd/BqTHRn

Catherine Marcus: Remembrance Day must not be eclipsed by the Occupy Everything movement
“In the Holy Trinity Church on Micklegate, in York, there is a simple placard which lists the names of four soldiers, the sons of Captain Charles Fitzpatrick, all of whom died within years of each other in the Second World War. You can see from the dates that Captain Charles and his wife outlived their sons by decades. The placard would not be there if it wasn’t for Captain Fitzpatrick’s daughter, who donated some money to the church and had the sign placed there. And if it weren’t for that sign, no one would know of the sacrifice made by one family in North Yorkshire, one made by so many other families, a sacrifice that makes one cry for them, seventy years later, because of the depth of its magnitude.” Read More: http://is.gd/hZkAEI

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