Christopher Howarth: The Conservative tribes should—and should be able to—unite behind Cameron’s speech
Christopher Howarth is a senior Political Analyst at the think tank Open Europe. Prior to Open Europe he worked as a Conservative Foreign Affairs Adviser and senior researcher to a Shadow Europe Minister. Follow Open Europe on Twitter.
So now we know that if there is a Conservative Government after 2015 there will be a real attempt to negotiate a new deal for the UK within the EU followed by a straight In/Out referendum.
William Hague has, in the past, referred to Europe as a ticking bomb planted under the heart of the Conservative Party. David Cameron therefore deserves huge credit for tackling this issue head on and attempting to defuse it. So can the all-clear be sounded? Well, perhaps surprisingly, yes – as there are sound, logical reasons for all Conservative strands of opinion to back this new renegotiation referendum policy (the 2R policy).
The existence of Tory Euro factions is overplayed by the media, but, with the help of an ethnologist, here is how the three main ‘tribes’ should react.
First, we have the “Reformists” tribe. This is by far the largest tribe within the Parliamentary party and is reflective of board public opinion. This group comprises much of the new intake of MPs, the 100+ supporters of the Fresh Start project and many Ministers who see the faults in the EU but, rather than leave altogether, believe that there is a possibility to improve the UK’s terms into something that the British people could be happy with. This group would have been disenfranchised if a referendum was held prior to renegotiation, and so should feel relieved that they now have the chance to prove renegotiation can work. They should be the loudest cheerleaders for David Cameron’s speech as their approach now has a powerful champion.
Second, we have the “Status Quo” tribe. This is a small tribe of c.20 MPs, some new MPs and others who originally supported the euro. Although not necessarily against reform they nonetheless fear that a failed re-negotiation could lead to unrealistic expectations being dashed and a race for the EU exit. This group is elusive, writing a concerned letter to the FT, but refusing to publish their names. However, this group is aware the status quo is not an option, and that moves towards Eurozone integration requires a UK response.
This group should not be afraid. David Cameron has said renegotiation will be done in tandem with other states to put the UK’s membership on a sustainable footing. They should not resist, but take ownership of the project and make sure it is a success. This group should study the opinion polls which consistently show that support for staying inside the EU on new more favourable terms can be high. This is a far better long-term bet for UK EU membership than seeking to avoid change or refusing to consult the people. They should and probably will support the speech.
Third, there is the “Better off Out” tribe. This tribe comprises a small but vocal group of MPs who believe that the cost/benefit ratio of the UK’s EU membership is so high the UK should leave and negotiate a new deal outside the EU. This group believe that renegotiation within the EU will inevitably lead to failure and so is not worth contemplating. They share this view with the “Status quo” tribe.
The “Better off Out” tribe should be very happy with this speech. They have long campaigned for an EU In/Out referendum, and now it could happen within five years. They will therefore be able to test their arguments in front of the public. Following their logic, if, as they believe, negotiations fail then this group has effectively been vindicated and will have a powerful springboard to secure an Out. This group has gained exactly what it has argued for and so should enthusiastically back the speech.
So, all the tribes have a reason to rally behind David Cameron. Given that, the best response would be for the Conservative Party to put up an impressive show of unity and pressure the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats to likewise explain what their policy response to the eurocrisis is. Will for instance Labour go into the election promising to defeat a referendum? There is a huge opportunity to pay back, with interest, a decade of Labour taunts about a “divided” Conservative party.
But there are some unanswered questions that could still upset things. The main one is the speech has (rightly) not yet set out what the specific aims of renegotiation will be. This will have to come, but until it does there will be those afraid that we could see a re-run of 1975, when only a few token additional benefits were gained. There will have to be a debate on the substance of a renegotiation, but at the moment Conservatives should be happy with the general principle. In addition, there are the conditions that are attached. Will the 2R policy apply if (God forbid) there is another Coalition post 2015? How long will renegotiations be allowed to take? Will Cabinet ministers be allowed to campaign for an out?
All these concerns somewhat jump the gun, lets concentrate on the big picture, the British people could now, at long last, get the chance to have their say on a reformed EU – the biggest “if” standing in the way of that is a Labour victory in 2015. For that, at least, all the Conservative tribes should unite.