By Paul Goodman
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Grant Shapps and/or some clever boffin at CCHQ has come up with the wheeze of letting voters co-sponor James Wharton's EU referendum bill.
I've just done so - and you can do so here.
I wrote yesterday that CCHQ's online presence is less snazzy than it should be, but Shapps and his team are raising their game.
Jacob blesses Isaac, by Jacob Assereto (1600-49)
Ken Clarke speaks off the cuff about the EU without first getting the go-ahead from Downing Street, but writing about it in the Daily Telegraph this morning will have been a different matter. It is impossible to believe that his piece, in which familiar arguments for Britain's membership of the EU are set out, will not have been cleared in advance. Indeed, the choice of vehicle is significant. Party members are more likely to read the Daily Telegraph than any other Fleet Street paper, and Clarke's pitch to them is thus David Cameron's pitch to them.
It is all a part of the agree-to-disagree EU policy that the Prime Minister has come round to. On the one hand, the Government will support continued EU membership after any post-2015 renegotiation. (That is the implication of his big speech on Europe in January.) On the other, country and Party will get an In-Out referendum, in which they are free to disagree. It is true that the small print of this deal is worth studying closely. For example, Cabinet Ministers won't be free to campaign against the Government's position, as Harold Wilson's were in 1975.
Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Gove, Philip Hammond, Owen Paterson and perhaps five others will thus have to make a choice - assuming, of course, that they're still in the Cabinet then and that the Party is still in Government. Clarke's article is both distinct and indistinguishable from the standard case that will be made for leaving. It is distinct in its sense of mischief and chutzpah. He teases Conrad Black, his former fellow Bilderberger and a former Telegraph proprietor, about the completion of a US-Canada trade deal.
Clarke believes that Black and other proprietors of what he habitually refers to as "the right-wing press" (the phrase is not intended as a compliment) are responsible for whipping up Euro-sceptic feeling. Clarke is tweaking the tail of the ex-proprietor in the paper he once owned. He also prays Margaret Thatcher in aid, citing what she did in government rather than what she said later - "handbag swinging, never giving in, never giving up, she alternately charmed and cajoled Europe into the reforms which she saw were so clearly needed".
The nub of Clarke's argument is that Britain is more likely to reach a trade deal with the U.S as part of the EU bloc than on its own. There is no good reason simply to swallow this assertion: as the Bruges Group points out, Britain and America have one of the closest trading relationships in the world. Nor will an EU-US deal necessarily be better than one that America and Britain could negotiate bilaterally. French lobbying has already ensured that the media and entertainment industries won't be included in any US-EU deal - which will hit Britain particularly hard.
None the less, the nearer a referendum gets, the louder Clarke's case will be made - and not just by him. Caroline Spelman makes the same argument on this site this morning, citing the car industry, which is worried about a trade war if Britain leaves. In the book of Genesis, Rebekah tricks Jacob into Esau's inheritance by disguising the latter as the former - thus deceiving his father. The old man almost spots the dodge. "The voice is Jacob's voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau," he says. The hands are the hands of Clarke, but the voice is Cameron's voice.
Cynics will say that now Edward Leigh has his knighthood in his pocket (so to speak), he will feel free to be as openly critical of the Government as he likes. But I think this would be to mis-read the significance of his sweeping dismissal on this site today of the Queen's Speech as "the weakest legislative programme in recent memory", and his warning that "unless there is a change of course, and a firming-up of our Conservative instincts, we could lose the election". He writes: "A group of like-minded Members of Parliament – the Centre-Right Steering Group – have been coming together in recent weeks to question the path the leadership are taking and to scrutinise their policies".
The steering group brings together some of the main groups on the centre-right of the Party - including Cornerstone and the No Turning Back Group. It is likely that some of its key members will have been aware of Leigh's article in advance of publication. And David Cameron is acutely aware that views of his leadership on the Party's centre-right range from the loyally critical to the contemptuously hostile: hence his recent appointment of John Hayes, who co-founded Cornerstone with Leigh, to Downing Street as his Parliamentary Private Secretary.
Signs of economic recovery and of progress in the polls, and attempts by the Prime Minister to reach out to his right (such as the masterminding of James Wharton's EU referendum bill) seem to have done nothing to pacify some of Cameron's critics, for whose grievances he must take some of the blame. I believe that Leigh is right on some points (same-sex marriage, HS2) and wrong on others (tax and spending). David Cameron isn't going to tear up his election pledges, and un-ring fence aid and NHS spending. So to suggest that he does is a waste of breath.
In which case, the economies that Leigh wants - and for which he has such a keen eye in his role as a former Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee - wouldn't be enough to deliver tax cuts on the scale he implies. The Government would need billions of pounds in savings, not millions - and to find them, it would need drastically to re-think the role of state, along the lines set out by Harry Phibbs set out recently on this site, and pursued by Liam Fox in a recent speech in which he praised our Local Government correspondent.
I am all for such a re-think - ConservativeHome is one of the few centre-right publications to have run a series on how to scale back public spending further - but, when it comes to cutting spending, much of the right is all mouth and no trousers. All in all, Leigh's worry about "a percentage of our people [peeling] away to the right" is absolutely correct but, if such imagery is to be used, David Cameron must worry no less about the Party's appeal to the centre. Successful conservative leaders abroad, such as Stephen Harper, appeal to both at the same time.
The leitmotif of this site since it was set up has been that to campaign on such Tory staple issues as tax and Europe is necessary but not sufficent. To maintain power, it must recognise that most of the seats it needs to win and hold are urban and suburban ones in the midlands and north, where the public sector is larger, selling a scale-back of the state is more difficult, and voters (as they are elsewhere) are at least as concerned about, say the NHS as the EU - to put it mildly. Leigh places an electoral stress on the issue that the polling evidence doesn't justify.
But in doing so, he sends an important message to Downing Street. Only a majority Conservative Government can deliver the In/Out referendum to which David Cameron is committed. The promise of the latter has satisfied some of the Prime Minister's former critics on the EU who simply want Out. But it hasn't quelled the appetite of many of his backbenchers for a major renegotiation, and Leigh's views are an eloquent expression of them. If Cameron delays setting out his own view until late next year, he risks a destabilising row about its scale and ambition during the run-up to an election. Better for him and everyone else to have it sooner rather than later, rather than let the matter drift through inertia and irresolution.
By Mark Wallace
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Getting an in/out EU referendum was always going to be made more complicated due to the arithmetic of a hung Parliament. To deliver a national vote will require a Parliamentary majority in support of James Wharton's Private Member's Bill - which in practice means persuading wavering Labour (and even Lib Dem) MPs to back it.
We've already seen the launch of Labour For A Referendum, which reportedly has the support of up to half the Shadow Cabinet as well as quite a few Labour backbenchers. They are having an intense internal debate about Ed Miliband's confused position on the matter.
Today, Grant Shapps has launched a campaign to increase the pressure the electorate place on MPs to support a referendum.
The LetBritainDecide website is to the point:
The campaign brings a welcome simplicity to a debate that is often bogged down in unnecessary complexity. It will add to the difficulty of Miliband's tortured position on the EU, as well as putting the Conservative Party into contact with many more eurosceptic voters.
The uncomfortable truth for Labour, the Lib Dems and UKIP alike is that there is currently only one party bringing legislation before Parliament to give the people the referendum they want. Shapps is right to remind voters of that - and wise to apply pressure to the growing cracks within the Labour Parliamentary Party.
By Mark Wallace
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Imagine if the DWP, Foreign Office, Home Office, Department of Justice, DEFRA, the Treasury and the Attorney General all announced that they were launching outright challenges to European policies and institutions. It would be a major change of attitude towards Brussels and Strasbourg, a more bullish approach by British politicians finally standing up to domineering eurocrats.
It may surprise you to learn that you don't need to imagine it: that is exactly what has happened over the last two weeks. Had all of the announcements happened on the same day, perhaps the headlines would be bigger - as they were spread out, mixed in with other news, the trend has not so far been spotted.
Here's the chronology:
It is sad but true that examples of domestic politicians going out of their way to have a punch-up with the European authorities are few and far between. That seven cases have cropped up in such a short space of time suggests this is not a coincidence.
There are two schools of thought about what is going on:
1) This is a deliberate step in David Cameron's renegotiation strategy - the early stages of Britain asking for powers to be returned and the way the EU works to be reformed
2) This is an unintended symptom of the referendum pledge - where eurosceptic and anti-EU ministers previously felt that "banging on about Europe" could be career-damaging, now they are letting rip in a way they have long wished to do
In practice, I suspect a combination of both of those forces are at work. Not all of the ministers involved are traditionally eurosceptic, so it seems unlikely they would have gone out of their way to pick a fight on their own steam. However, the fact that David Cameron and Ken Clarke have felt it necessary to restate their support for EU membership today suggests that there are some fears of this trend getting out of hand.
There is also a third factor to consider - ministers do learn and change their behaviour, particularly if irritated. It is quite likely that soft eurosceptics who start off as part of the first group, doing as planned and pushing politely and reasonably for powers to be returned, will move into the second, more combative group as they begin to experience the stubborn attitude of the EU Commission.
The experience of being in Government but not fully in power, thanks to the vast amount of sovereignty passed to Brussels, has already hardened the views of a number of senior Conservatives on Britain's EU membership - that process will continue apace now people have started banging their heads on the proverbial brick wall.
That's unsurprising for those who, like me, find it hard to imagine the EU ever agreeing to a deal which would be acceptable to British interests. For those who are more optimistic about the prospects for reform it may come as a nasty shock - a shock which will further expand and harden euroscepticism in Westminster as reasonable requests are very publicly rebuffed by those in power in Brussels.
The Daily Mail was the first paper to have yesterday's story about the European Commission taking Britain to court over access to benefits for EU immigrants, and it is also the first to have today's about William Hague's plan to give national parliaments to reject Commission proposals if enough of them agree to. The Foreign Secretary is to argue in a speech to the Konigswinter Conference in Germany that the European Parliament has "failed’ to bring democratic accountability to the EU, and that powers should therefore be returned to national ones. These can already give out "yellow cards" to Commission plans. Hague wants them to be able to give out red ones as well.
The Foreign Secretary wouldn't float an idea if believed that his hosts were likely to reject it out of hand. The Mail says that he believes that he will find support for his plan among other northern European countries. The proposal thus illustrates how taxpayers in these countries are subsidising the EU project, which returns us to the Commission and benefits: it has made similar complaints about Austria to those it made yesterday about Britain. This raises the question of whether the suggestion has been rushed into Hague's speech today in response to the Commission's threat, or whether he was planning to set it out in any event.
The Foreign Office claims the latter - and points to a speech which David Lidington, the Europe Minister, made last month in which much the same plan was set out. The Foreign Secretary's plan won't interest those Conservatives who believe that Britain would be better off out. And some of those who want to see the repatriation of powers will doubtless argue that a single country's parliament should be able to block the Commission. But whatever one's view, it is encouraging from a Party point of view to see Hague putting out proposals that might be part of a renegotiation package, and giving them a bit of a push.
As the debacle over the recent Commons EU referendum vote showed, David Cameron must get ahead of his backbenchers on EU policy during the long run-up to the next election - and the next manifesto. If he falls behind, and seeks to delay proposals for change until early 2015 (after the Government's balance of competences review has been published in full), those backbenchers, plus Party members, will produce their own ideas and thus take the lead. This, in turn, would be likely to produce a unity-undermining row just before an election campaign and quite possibly during it - like the one over the single currency in 1997. Hague's speech today is thus a bit of a start. More, please.
By Mark Wallace
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The Eurocrats' latest wheeze is a legal case intended to strike down the restrictions used to prevent benefit tourists milking the British benefits system. Such a campaign is obviously outrageous - and deeply unpopular with taxpayers who are already concerned about some of their fellow Brits taking undue advantage of the welfare state.
IDS - and eurosceptics more generally - could not have asked for a more perfect goody.
He will "fight it all the way", apparently even to the point of appearing in court himself. He won't just thunder about this, expect him to have a full Thor outfit winging its way to his office on mail order. To slightly adjust the originally quote, the quiet man is smashing Brussels with a viking war hammer.
Conservative MPs will be in their constituencies less on Fridays in the near future than would otherwise be the case. In a double-pronged move, William Hague has written to each one asking for diaries to be cleared for July 5, when James Wharton will present his EU referendum bill to the Commons, and Grant Shapps has sent a letter to Association Chairmen about the measure. The Foreign Secretary has also asked Tory MPs to keep their Friday diaries light for the near future. The Prime Minister's latest charm offensive to his Party is under way.
Ed Miliband hasn't ruled out a referendum at some point, and Nick Clegg appears to be re-warming to one (or rather, has been re-warming to one - see Mark Wallace's account of his twists and turns on the matter). But neither will want to see a Conservative-backed bill pass through the Commons, and although some non-Tory MPs will certainly vote for it, it's most unlikely to succeed. Furthermore, I suspect the temptation to amend it by tacking on a mandate referendum or renegotiation proposals will be too much for some Conservative backbenchers to resist.
David Cameron will be hoping that Labour and the Liberal Democrats opposition to the bill will be go down badly with voters - but I'm not convinced that voters will be greatly moved by it. However, some will notice if the proceedings give an impression of Tory disunity, (see today's poll in the Independent) with Ministers and PPS's being whipped to vote against backbench amendments. All this reinforces the case for Cameron to get on the front foot over the repatriation of powers, and set out his own view, rather than see backbenchers set the pace during Wharton's bill and the run-up to the 2015 election campaign.
By Mark Wallace
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It is impossible to mention UKIP without Nigel Farage springing to mind, a pint in one hand and a fag in the other. He has ridden to national fame on the UKIP wave, and played a huge part in driving it forward.
By differing in every way from the main party leaders - dress, manner, style of speaking, lifestyle - he has cast himself successfully as the anti-politics politician.
As an MEP for the last 14 years, and a co-founder of his party 20 years ago, it is a surprising coup. Plenty of local Councillors are dismissed as mere members of the political class as soon as they are elected, but he has somehow slipped the label despite his last "proper job" - to use a favoured Farage turn of phrase - being in the 1990s.
It is far from his only achievement. "Some of the [UKIP] members treat him almost as a messianic figure," says one longstanding activist, sounding slightly concerned at the idea. Messiah or naughty boy, Farage has proved a regular hit on Question Time, and in the last few months it feels like he has been living in the nation's news studios. In March, Ipsos Mori found that he is the only party leader with a positive approval rating.
It is starting to feel like he might enter that select group of public figures identifiable by their first name alone - not something many would have predicted for a Nigel.
But he has been UKIP leader before, from 2006-2009, without such a media breakthrough for himself or his party. What has changed?
By Peter Hoskin
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Policies? What policies?! That used to be the cry when UKIP were less a political party and more a pressure group for our departure from Europe. But such scoffs and sneers are, if not entirely unwarranted, certainly less relevant nowadays. The party’s website provides a fairly clear list, split in to several sections, of their thinking on defence, on welfare, on energy, and most of the other areas where governments actually ought to do a spot of governing. There are gaps to mind – some hastily covered over with promises of reviews to come – but what party outside of government couldn’t say the same, two years away from a general election? Indeed, if you compare the UKIP website with, say, Labour’s, it offers a firmer sense of ideology and of policy. Can we even be sure that Ed Miliband’s policy on Europe won’t change before 2015? We can be sure that Nigel Farage’s won’t, and of more besides.
The Big E
While Europe may not represent the sum total of UKIP’s aspirations, let’s start this five-point distillation of their policies on the Continent, as it were. After all, leaving Europe’s political union is not just the totem they bow before, it also provides the basis for many of their other policies. It’s all about freedom, you see. Apparently, once we’re free from what Mr Farage would no doubt describe as the “shackles” of the Brussels bastille, then so many other opportunities would present themselves; whether it’s opportunities to cut taxes, to severely reduce immigration, or to trade with the rest of the world.