Tory divisions on Europe may have Cameron throwing knives
LONDON LETTER:THE CONSERVATIVE Party has rarely been more united in its general attitude to the European Union. Yet still the subject provokes divisions between a prime minister with limited room for manoeuvre and backbenchers who want to pull away.
During prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons yesterday, David Cameron squirmed in the face of probing attacks from Labour’s Ed Miliband, who highlighted his twists and turns on the opportunities offered by a new EU treaty.
Six weeks ago, Cameron offered his backbenchers the prospect of repatriating powers from Brussels; over employment laws, among other things, if EU heads of states ever sat down to discuss such a proposal. Now that they have, Cameron, as might have been predicted, has been confronted with the usual problems leaders face: competing aims, not all of which can be achieved, leaving choices ranging from the unpalatable to the awful.
Urged to show “bulldog spirit” by Tory MP Andrew Rosindell, Cameron waffled, before choosing to emphasise the primary targets: safeguarding the existence of the euro and protecting the City of London.
One after the other, Rosindell’s colleagues on the back benches demanded repatriation of powers, or complained that Cameron was supporting a policy that would create an undemocratic single government among the 17 euro zone states. Nine Tories in all came forward to pose questions, leading, bizarrely, to some private complaints from Cameron supporters in the Commons tea-rooms that Speaker John Bercow had called too many unfriendly questions.
Under a law passed this year, British voters will be given a referendum – the first since 1975 – if the UK signs up for any treaty that transfers more sovereignty to the EU, a transfer that Cameron never envisaged. However, sovereignty can be threatened even when a state’s signature is not on a treaty, since the creation of a core EU-17 would by its very existence impact on the relationship the remaining 10 would have with the European Union as a whole.
Daventry MP Chris Heaton Harris warns that a 17-strong caucus in the EU fundamentally changes the rules since the caucus would, under qualified majority voting, be able to able to overrule the UK and other non-EU states when they chose.
However, Cameron’s options are limited. He threatened to veto an EU treaty on Monday night, though such an act would leave the UK as an international pariah if London was seen to be blocking measure necessary to ensure the euro’s continued existence.
In an article in the Times published yesterday, Cameron emphasised his priorities, the Euro and the City of London, without mentioning his long-held desire to bring powers over other things back to London. For decades, British governments have not wanted to be involved in major EU change – bar, it can be said, the major exception of Margaret Thatcher’s role in the creation of the single market; yet they have feared the implications of others moving ahead on their own. Today, however, chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne has been the cheerleader for a euro zone deal, urging members to create a closer fiscal union among themselves to get their house in order.
Such a deal would inevitably leave the UK on the margins. Many in the Conservative ranks would have no problem with such an outcome, along as they get a pound of flesh; but the City of London would rightly fear being surpassed in time by Frankfurt as a global financial centre. Even if Cameron gets platitudes about the City out of the EU summit, it is unlikely that he will get a promise that the proposal for a financial transaction tax will be dropped, since such issues, once put on the Brussels table, never go away. Former Cabinet minister John Redwood says Cameron enjoys “the best negotiating card” to win power back: “I and many colleagues feel the same, and I think the country feels the same.”Favouring a deal among the EU-17, Redwood, like others, nonetheless fears that the ripples from one would affect the UK: “It is very difficult keeping Britain out of all the powers that they have already taken or may take to try and complete their monetary union,” he said.
So, on repatriation Cameron faces impossible demands. But the parallel demands for a referendum are supported even within the Cabinet, for example by Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson.Yesterday, he told The Spectator magazine yesterday that one was inevitable if “there was a major fundamental change in our relationship, emerging from the creation of a new bloc” because “I think the pressure would build up”.
Paterson is now publicly on side with former Tory leader Iain Duncan-Smith, now secretary of state for work and pensions, who made his views on the subject known at the weekend.
Earlier this month, Paterson and Duncan-Smith dined at No 10 with Cameron in the kitchen of his family flat upstairs. The meal was interrupted by the appearance of a mouse – one of many roaming free in the building.
Cameron, it is said, uttered expletives about the infestation, despite the presence of Larry the Cat, and threw a fork, silver, of course, at the offending creature.
He may feel like throwing more sharp objects before this week is out.