Pro-EU Tories hoping Cameron speech can find middle way
ANALYSIS:Conservative MP for Swindon Robert Buckland led the production last week of a letter from party colleagues declaring support for the UK’s membership of the European Union.
“We’re less rare than you might think, actually. I will use the phrase coined by a very famous Irishman, Oscar Wilde, ‘The love that dare not speak its name’,” he says.
“I think the mainstream of the Conservatives – although a lot of them would describe themselves as Eurosceptic – are not in favour of withdrawal. I think recent discussions and debates have drawn this out,” he continues.
Today, Buckland, like so many others, will watch attentively when British prime minister David Cameron finally delivers his oft-delayed speech on the UK’s future relations with the EU.
Fifteen colleagues signed the letter with him, 10 more “wanted to add their name, but felt they couldn’t be public. And there is a penumbra of people again who didn’t want to get involved directly.
“I am not just flying a kite on my own. It is an important voice that needs to be heard and will be heard in the context of the debate in the run-up to the next election and, hopefully, a Conservative majority,” says Buckland.
However, 15 is but a fraction of the Tory Westminster ranks. And some have “an unfounded fear” of being targeted by Britain’s mostly Eurosceptic press, acknowledged the Conservative MP for Swindon.
“I wouldn’t want to be categorised as somebody who is particularly brave, I don’t feel that at all. I just see myself as somebody who says what he thinks,” says Buckland.
Cameron, he hopes, will affirm that Britain’s long-term future continues to lie within the European Union, while Conservatives who oppose Buckland’s world view want to hear the opposite.
In his speech, the British prime minister will focus on three challenges facing the EU: the euro zone crisis; competitiveness; and public support, which must be confronted and “tackled head-on”, he will argue.
Cameron’s language, when he lays out his desired changes specifically in EU-UK relationships, will be closely parsed. If he pushes hard, the prime minister will be accused by some of making impossible demands.
If he does not, then Conservative Eurosceptic MPs will accuse him of having raised expectations, only to disappoint – although in recent days the majority have seemed anxious to avoid outright war.
Cameron has to find a middle way. One that is couched so the words can be interpreted differently by disparate audiences, even if they know that one day tone will have to be converted into action.
In 1974 then Labour prime minister Harold Wilson sought to renegotiate terms of the UK’s common market entry. However, the changes put to, and accepted, by voters a year later differed little when contrasted with those offered previously to Edward Heath.
Cameron, if still in power after 2015, faces a similar danger now since the other member states in the EU will bridle at demands for concessions by London – particularly if they are conceded to the UK alone.
Most Conservative MPs, argues Buckland, are realistic about what can be achieved even if they are determined that some effort must be made to satisfy the public irritation with the EU.
“If the renegotiation results in a relatively modest package, that is going to have to satisfy the mainstream within the party,” says the Swindon representative.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Buckland is prepared to make the case for EU membership at public meetings in his constituency, which is home to Honda’s UK operations.
“For us, looking outward has been part of our life blood. Forget about the abstruse debates that go on in here about whether article blah is consistent with whatever Act of Parliament.
“On the ground we are talking about people’s livelihoods and that is where we must keep bringing the debate. We have ended up treating it like some sort of parlour game.
“The more jargon you use the cleverer you are, the more you know about Europe. It is time to end that, and I speak as a lawyer. I think it is time we pulled it back.”