By Peter Wilding
In order to appease his increasingly discontented backbenchers the PM, in anticipation of Liam Fox’s bid this morning to lead the leaderless Tory right, has thrown a bit of decomposing meat at them. It says:
- We’ll have a manifesto commitment to renegotiate after the next general election.
- We’ll try to renegotiate power repatriation and then put it to a referendum.
Little wonder that few of the vocal Tories are happy with this. Bruce Anderson, long-time bon viveur and Tory chronicler, puts it neatly:
“Their attitude to the EU is easy to define. They are sick of it. These days, the Tory party is divided between the Euro-sceps – the vast majority – and the Euro-loathers, who hate Europe so much that they cannot think straight. It would not be too late for them to try, if they would only accept that their fears are vastly exaggerated. Those who are calling for a referendum now are still thinking in terms of a weapon to fend off federalism. With respect, they are out of date. We in the UK no longer have to worry about the EU’s strength. Now, the threat comes from its weakness.”
Weakness, however, should provide an opportunity for the UK and its allies to reshape the EU around one of its major successful projects – the single market. This, after all, is so far the PM’s European cri de coeur. Nucleus understands that the opportunity for repatriation should not be seen as a policy development restricted to the UK. Nor is the increasingly overburdened Commission closed to the idea of shedding some of its load. Especially in today’s feverish environment where, at one and the same time, the EU must take control of the centrifugal economic forces the crisis has created but also anticipate the centripetal cultural forces that demand more national control. But the Telegraph leader is clueless on the paradox, saying that the UK needs to be proactive, but only to blackmail the EU – and demanding, but only for itself.
“Mr Cameron and his ministers have to be proactive and not just wait to see what others do. An opportunity may well present itself soon for the UK to renegotiate its position inside the EU and restore some of the powers that have been lost, while continuing to enjoy the benefits of the single market. Our partners may object – but Mr Cameron needs to be clear about what he thinks is realistically attainable and to spell out how he proposes to go about achieving it.”
Which, of course, is the problem. Why should key partners object to a ‘grand bargain’ of repatriation-all-round? What is ‘realistically attainable’ is not an excuse for finger-in-the-air diplomacy nor, frankly, the ‘stand and deliver’ spluttering of the europhobes. What people want from the PM but, in truth, cannot get, is vision. What those who demand a referendum today cannot get over is the fact that as Europe is changing, more imaginative policy options may emerge for the UK rather than simply dumping British power in the EU and hoping for the best.
As James Chapman says in the Daily Mail:
“Mr Cameron’s opposition to a binary ‘in/out’ choice is also understandable. Many of the Tory party’s staunchest Eurosceptics believe the British people, confronted with a business-led ‘yes’ campaign warning hundreds of thousands of jobs would be lost in a ‘Brixit’, would vote to stay in.”
Which is why Conservative Home’s Tim Montgomerie, writing in the Times, must be vastly wide of the mark when he says:
“Liam Fox’s intervention yesterday… suggests he might join an “out” campaign… He might be joined by other senior Tories, including Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Justine Greening, Philip Hammond and Oliver Letwin… Two other Tories to watch will be Boris Johnson, who will probably join the “outers”, and George Osborne… [Osborne] could easily back an exit if he concluded that the terms of continuing membership were unsatisfactory.”
If the Conservative Party decides to abandon the concerns of its principal supporters in business and the City, that would present a golden opportunity for the revival of the New Labour coalition. Labour may trump the Tories with an in/out call but they will be firmly backing an ‘in’ result. The only result for the Tories is a ruinous split and powerlessness for a generation.