Last Updated: Friday, November 2nd, 2012
Twenty years ago, at the time of the Maastricht Treaty and Bill that so destabilised John Major’s Government, the Conservative Party was divided between Euro-enthusiasts (who believe that Britain must remain a member of the EU) and Euro-sceptics (who clustered then around the aim of preserving the pre-Maastricht status quo).
Today, in the wake of this week’s Government defeat over the EU budget, it is clear beyond doubt that the Party is now divided mainly between “soft” Euro-sceptics (who want to see a major repatriation of power from the EU to the UK) and “hard” Euro-sceptics (who want to see Britain quit the EU altogether).
If there is a consensus on EU policy among Tory MPs, it is probably near the policy advanced by Liam Fox and David Davis, those two senior heavyweights: that Britain should have a big push for renegotiation – and that an In/Out referendum should be held if this can’t be achieved. This approach is acquiring a new momentum.
One of the main reasons why it is doing so is because support for this position has now spread beyond the voluntary party and Conservative MPs, and is increasingly represented in Cabinet. The significance of Michael Gove’s reported view that he would vote for the Out position in an In-Out referendum can scarcely be under-stated.
This is because it follows from this opinion that if a major renegotiation cannot be achieved, then the UK should leave. And the Education Secretary is a not only a major player in the Government but a senior member of Team Cameron – and, for all his elaborate denials, a possible future leadership contender.
Mr Gove was not slapped down by Downing Street for his remarks. Indeed, Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary – another member of David Cameron’s top team of seven senior Cabinet members – sympathised with them. And Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson would not dissent from the Davis/Fox approach.
Other Cabinet members, such as Justine Greening, the International Development Secretary, have made sceptical interventions in Cabinet. From outside the Government and the Commons, Boris Johnson is piling up Euro-sceptic pressure on the Government. George Osborne will be watching his possible future leadership rival anxiously.
It is now hard to believe that David Cameron will not have to concede a major renegotiation push, and perhaps a referendum, in the next Conservative manifesto. If he gains a majority in 2015, the Fox/Davis position may well become the norm: the chances of an “In/In” poll are receding. If he does not, the Tories are likely to commit to it in Opposition.
Those who support Britain’s EU membership in Whitehall and in business – not to mention those abroad in northern EU countries such as Germany, who have traditionally seen Britain as a free-trading and Atlanticist ally – are asking themselves: why on earth are Tory Euro-enthusiasts allowing all this to happen?
For there is, despite the hardening of the Parliamentary Party’s position on Europe, a segment of Conservative MPs (and party members) whose bottom line is that in the last resort Britain must remain an EU member. This stance is not just taken by Kenneth Clarke in Cabinet and by older MPs such as Robert Walter on the backbenches.
There is strong support for it within the Government’s Ministerial ranks. For example, Damian Green, the senior Home Office Minister, is a long-time champion of the EU cause. And it is not absent even from the markedly Euro-sceptic 2010 intake: Anna Soubry, Robert Buckland, Jane Ellison, Neil Carmichael – all are associated with it.
It is very hard to estimate accurately what percentage of Conservative MPs would come out, if push came to shove, for staying in the EU. My sense is that between a fifth and a quarter of them would back Britain leaving it with various shades of enthusiasm. It follows that up to four-fifths of Tory MPs have not reached a settled view on the issue.
But those pro-EU observers in business and Whitehall and abroad are right. No organised fightback by Euro-enthusiast Conservatives is taking place – indeed, what fightback there is being led from the Foreign Office by David Lidington, the Europe Minister. This is unsustainable. Ministers cannot defend a position without vocal backbench support.
A trawl through the websites of Tory groups traditionally associated with Euro-enthusiasm yields evidence for my claim. Conservative Mainstream’s website avoids the issue. There is very little about it on the better-maintained site of the Tory Reform Group. The young, energetic and modernising Bright Blue group has no agreed position on the EU.
The site of the Conservative Europe Group has news of a lecture by that long-time Euro-enthusiast, Lord Debden (formerly John Gummer) next week. There are reports of European Democrat Student events abroad. There is one strong article in its publications section attacking the Euro-sceptic British newspapers.
But there is no setting-out of a basic case for Britain’s EU membership, no campaigning section of the site, no apparent attempt to recruit, no carrying of the fight to the Euro-sceptic opposition. A small new group called Nucleus is more active, and has strong Conservative representation on it, but it is not solely a Tory organisation.
All considered, the collective failure of Euro-enthusiast Conservatives to battle for a cause they believe in over many years has been breathtaking. Tories who believe in Britain’s membership of the EU are seeing the ground on which they stand vanishing from beneath them. Their response in effect is to stand still and do little.
Why? There are seven main reasons:
* Conservative Euro-enthusiasts are not uncritical supporters of the EU. That they agree with some of the criticisms of the Euro-sceptics – about Eurozone failure, EU waste and a lack of real accountability – tends to blunt their edge.
* The EU’s future is unclear. It is possible that the Eurozone will break up altogether, and probable that fiscal union will happen in some form sooner or later. Tory Euro-enthusiasts find it hard to defend an institution that is in flux.
* Tory Euro-enthusiasts tend to be represented disproportionately at Ministerial level, which leaves fewer of them to battle for their cause on the backbenches.
* They don’t have a Conservative mainstream media outlet for their views. The Murdoch papers, Telegraph, Mail and Express are all Euro-sceptic in outlook: the last is now a campaigning “Out” paper.
* Demoralistion and exhaustion. One young Euro-enthusiast MP I spoke to earlier today said that his fellow MPS have been worn down by the language in which some Euro-sceptics conduct debate. The way in which Tony Baldry, an older Euro-enthusiast MP, was heckled during this week’s debate has been cited to me as an example.
* Fear of constituency trouble. ConservativeHome polling has found that about half of party members want to leave the EU. No wonder MPs and candidates with Euro-enthusiast views tend to hide their light under a bushel.
* Complacency. This has been the single greatest failure of the Euro-enthusiasts – to dismiss their opponents as “mad” and not engage seriously with their arguments.
By Paul Goodman
HIGHLIGHTS FROM THE WEEK ON CONSERVATIVEHOME
Roger Scruton: Introducing Thinkers’ Corner
“For too long conservatives have been reluctant to lay claim to their intellectual heritage, while the media, muffled by political correctness, have given little or no space to any way of thinking that would challenge their left-liberal orthodoxies. It is time to change all that. Achievable policies require believable principles, and believable principles depend on clear ideas. Recently a group of thinking conservatives got together with a view to defining those ideas and to encouraging the Conservative Party to subscribe to them and to build them into its policies. In this section of ConservativeHome we will present short statement of 250-500 words, each devoted to some concept vital to the presentation of the conservative worldview.” Read more: http://is.gd/WGa4xx
Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart: Key facts on the size and nature of last night’s Tory budget rebellion
“Some 53 Conservative MPs, including tellers, voted against their whip. That’s not the largest rebellion of the Parliament so far (which was over Lords reform), or even the largest rebellion over Europe (the revolt of a year ago, over a referendum, involved 81 Conservative MPs). But it does make it a larger revolt than any Conservative rebellion over Europe before 2010 – including bigger than any of the Maastricht rebellions…Defeats caused by such tactical manoeuvres are embarrassing for the government but they do not represent a systematic problem. Last night was the first Commons defeat caused by internal opposition, and it is therefore much more serious.” Read more: http://is.gd/FpA8KT
Jill Kirby: How to avoid further child benefit chaos
“In making this new charge, the Treasury is not only breaching the principle of independent taxation, it is also introducing into the tax system the uncertainties, anomalies and disincentives currently afflicting welfare assessments. The government’s best hope is that families will opt out of child benefit entirely, rather than face up to the form-filling required to enable them to keep all or part of the money. However, accountants and financial journalists are advising parents to continue to opt in, to guard against the difficulty of rejoining the system later if their circumstances change. By staying opted in, mothers who take time out to look after their children will also be sure of maintaining their National Insurance records, as the basis for their state pensions.” Read more: http://is.gd/JdjhsT
Lord Ashcroft: The Tories have a plan to win the next election and the team to deliver it
“We need to ensure we do not repeat the errors of campaign organisation that were perpetrated last time. As Janan Ganesh correctly notes in his biography of George Osborne (which I reviewed in Saturday’s Guardian), one of the problems with the 2010 campaign was that it was “run” by a handful of senior figures with different ideas, none of whom had the authority to overrule anybody else. This chaotic situation must be avoided next time – but one sure way to repeat it would be to bring in another big figure with his own ideas about how campaigns should be run. That is why I believe it would be a mistake to hire Lynton Crosby.” Read more: http://is.gd/N7uklb
Bruce Anderson: This government is standing firm on its policies, but it must do better on the politics:
“Chris Grayling, the new Lord Chancellor and Justice Minister, has settled in to his eminence and his mighty responsibilities as if they came naturally to him. Mr Grayling has an important advantage. He looks a bit like an old-fashioned policeman, from the days when coppers were proper people. On crime and criminals, Ken Clarke always seemed ill at ease, as if he did not want his Euro-fanatic friends to think that he was sucking up to the Daily Mail. Mr Grayling has no such inhibitions. On crime and criminals, his views are simple. He wants less of one and fewer of the other.” Read more: http://is.gd/oAH28f
Nadine Dorries MP: There does reach a point when the right to the life of a baby takes precedence over the mother’s right to choose:
“This coming Wednesday morning, in Westminster Hall, I shall be leading a debate to reduce the upper limit at which abortion takes place and will be making the case for those babies which are aborted for social reasons, i.e., relationship breakdown, job change etc to be limited to twenty weeks. My proposal does not include foetal abnormality – that will remain a discussion between doctors and parents. However, it hurts to exclude those babies, as for me personally, a baby with Downs or any disability is as precious as any baby without. The existing legal provision provides for abortion up until birth for foetal abnormality and so problems picked up on the twenty week scan are not affected. If the recent Paralympics can’t change the attitude of society towards babies with disabilities, I don’t stand a chance.” Read more: http://is.gd/is6laK
Grant Shapps: Our plans for the next election, including our 80 seat strategy and how you can help: “Once [our target] seats are decided, we also have plans to put the personnel in place to assist them. We’re in the process of recruiting and training a team of campaign managers – with help from our professional field staff – who will base themselves in each seat and really drive the campaign…I can also reveal that their initiation process won’t be a walk in the park. Our Campaign Manager “Elite Boot Camp” programme is up and running as the first recruits arrive for their training in a residential facility in the Midlands. There will be through-the-night election training and a course in campaign management to tackle the issues they’ll face. By really focusing in on these eighty seats, we’ll be making maximum use of our resources.” Read more: http://is.gd/0afaAX