By Harry Phibbs
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How would you vote in there was a referendum on EU membership tomorrow?
We know that certain cabinet ministers would vote to come out, we also know that others would vote to stay in. The Prime Minister, David Cameron says:
“There isn’t going to be a referendum tomorrow so it is a hypothetical question. What matters is making sure that we do everything we can to reform the EU — make it more flexible, more open, more competitive and improve Britain’s relations with the EU."
Even though he is in Washington to talk to President Obama about Syria, the G8 and a trade deal, the EU referendum was the issue Mr Cameron was being pressed on by the media. 9He is later visiting Boston and goes to New York tomorrow.)
The Prime Minister is talking up the prospect of substantial changes to our EU membership being renegotiated.
“Every Conservative cabinet minister is confident that we will be able to deliver those changes and so that is what we are pushing towards.”
“It is a very important simple point. There is only one way to get this in/out referendum. That is to make sure we deliver a Conservative victory at the next election.”
While he was at it Mr Cameron criticised the former Defence Secretary Michael Portillo, who suggested any renegotiation were hopeless:
By Mark Wallace
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Predictably, there are acres of newsprint devoted to the EU issue in the press today - what should Cameron do? Ought ministers to be allowed to vote for the amendment? Is this a damaging split or a realigning of the Conservative party to a more popular position?
It's easy to focus so much on the big ideological debates that we miss the more mundane practicalities - and yet a party needs both the right policies and the right day-to-day infrastructure to win elections.
As it happens, while the headlines are all about Europe there is a practical debate going on too, about how the party uses its European representatives.
As reported on MPsETC today, the selection process for the European Parliament elections is now underway. With a list system demanding that we order our candidates as well as just select them for each constituency, it's quite drawn-out.
There is also understandable controversy about the fact that sitting MEPs, if reselected, automatically go to the top of the list, effectively removing the power of the party membership to democratically deselect them should they so wish.
But this time round attention is falling on the bizarre purdah period the party rules enforce. For the duration of May, June and July, all Conservative MEPs and MEP candidates are forbidden from speaking at party events, going out campaigning with activists, host visitors at the European Parliament or even send out their regular emails updating party members on what is going on in Brussels.
By Peter Hoskin
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Could it really be that simple? After years of political and legal struggle, could Abu Qatada really just leave the UK voluntarily? That, after all, is what his legal team suggested in court yesterday. Their client, they claimed, would be happy leaving on a jet-plane for Jordan so long as he could be guaranteed a fair trial there. If our Parliament and Jordan’s ratify the treaty that Theresa May recently arranged, he’d hightail it out of here – and that could happen within months. Like I said, could it really be that simple?
It would be nice were it so, and not least because it would erase a particularly troublesome and persistent item from the Government’s to-do list. David Cameron could barely contain his enthusiasm for the idea yesterday, as he exclaimed “if he goes of his own accord, frankly, I’ll be one of the happiest people in Britain.”
The Coalition is likely to be and look rudderless in its last six months, as its partners prepare for the 2015 election, and therefore increasingly go their own ways. I thus favour a loosening of whipping during that time, with Conservative backbenchers moving motions and bills that (hopefully) give a flavour of the Tory manifesto to come - a tighter benefits cap, withdrawal from the ECHR, a delay to the carbon price floor, a lower immigration limit, and so forth.
Conservative Ministers would be able to speak and, when appropriate, vote in favour of these measures. Enshrining the planned EU In/Out referendum in law would be one of them. I'm not convinced that it would greatly move voters, given the low salience of the E.U issue - but it would be a sensible measure, and were I still in the Commons I would happily vote for it. The risk to the unity and coherence of the Coalition - leading to lost votes from unimpressed voters - seems less to me during the final months of the Coalition than it would be were that loosening to take place now.
By Andrew Gimson
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How excellent that the Conservative Party is arguing with itself, or with its leader, about Europe. This debate is often reported as if it were a problem, which in the short term it may well be. For David Cameron, it must in some ways be inconvenient that he has been unable to shut this discussion down.
But in any but the short term, it must be a good thing that the argument is taking place. For we need to work out whether we wish to remain a self-governing nation, or whether it would be more prudent, profitable and satisfying to merge our fortunes in a larger European entity, just as the fortunes of Massachusetts are merged in the United States of America.
To pose this question is to incur the scorn of sophisticated metropolitan figures. Nationhood strikes them as a primitive idea. They would rather veil it in misty assertions about the need to decide the most important questions at the European level.
Which is why UKIP is doing so well. Its concept of nationhood may not be the last word in sophistication, but at least that party is asking the right question. It recognises that the right to run our own affairs is in the end decisive.
By Mark Wallace
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A couple of hours ago, two backbenchers - John Baron MP and Peter Bone MP - tabled an amendment to the Queen's Speech, expressing regret that the Government had not announced an EU referendum bill.
Having spoken to Peter Bone, it's clear the amendment has been carefully drafted and targeted. The classic problem for eurosceptics - inside the Commons and out - has traditionally been the tendency to split into a myriad of different camps. This week has been no different, with some wanting the Prime Minister's 2017 referendum put into law, others wanting a law guaranteeing a referendum before 2015 and still others proposing a "mandate referendum" to take place before the negotiations begin (as Paul Goodman discussed here).
As a result of those differences of opinion, an amendment pushing one plan or another would be doomed to gather only limited support. Instead, the Baron/Bone text simply expresses regret at the lack of a referendum bill - and therefore, all of the above groups can support it. This is a scheme aiming to attract the widest possible support, rather than to push a specific, purist agenda.
John Redwood writes on this site today to advocate a mandate referendum on the EU in this Parliament - a move that would require an Act to make it happen. John Baron continues to lead the campaign for a separate Act in this Parliament, which would write the In/Out referendum to which David Cameron is committed into legislation. I will write about the arguments for and against both ideas in due course, but will for today limit myself to the implications which they have for the maintenance of the Coalition.
It might be that the Commons would vote for one of the two measures, or even both, because enough Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs would support them: it is arguable that Ed Miliband would not oppose the Baron initiative, in particular. But let's presume that Nick Clegg lines up against both bills (a reasonable presumption). In such circumstances, could Cameron whip Conservative MPs to go into one lobby if Liberal Democrat MPs were going into the other?
The question of whether the Prime Minister supports Redwood's or Baron's proposal (or both) thus turns out also to be a question about the future of the Coalition. Readers must decide for themselves whether it could work effectively were the two Parliamentary parties directed into different lobbies by their respective whips - and whether the Coalition is worth preserving. It's worth noting that the Coalition Agreement doesn't insist that the two parties vote together in all circumstances - for example, over tax breaks for marriage - and that the Liberal Democrats helped to enshrine it when they failed to support Jeremy Hunt.
My own answer is that the Coalition is worth preserving, and that while EU referendum bills might not bring it down, they would certainly strain it severely. This raises a further question: if the Coalition is worth preserving, how long should it last for? Again, readers must give decide for themselves, but my answer is that since it will effectively be inoperable for its final six months - or as good as - Cameron could loosen the whipping arrangements during that period.
It would probably be too late for a mandate referendum by then (mind you, I suppose one could be held on general election day itself), though there would certainly be time to enshrine the In/Out referendum in law. I would certainly like to see a series of initiatives from the backbenches, which Tory Ministers would support from the dispatch box - and, more often than not, in the lobbies. In that last six months, backbenchers could propose a tougher immigration cap, a tighter benefits cap, a British Bill of Rights, English votes for English laws - and so on. The alternative for David Cameron, at that stage, will be Parliamentary paralysis.
By Andrew Gimson
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Ken Clarke appeared on television yesterday morning in a beige roll-neck jersey of what I can only call magnificent unfashionableness. The garment proclaimed, without need for words, an Englishman’s ancient and inviolable right to wear whatever he feels comfortable in on Sunday morning, regardless of how dowdy it may look to metropolitan trendies, and regardless of whether he happens to be going on television.
Mr Clarke has another ancient English characteristic. He enjoys being rude about people. In his Sunday morning interview with Dermot Murnaghan of Sky News, he was rude about UKIP. I find it frustrating to read only the most abusive snippets from this kind of attack, which is all one gets in news reports where the journalist is having to cover a lot of ground. So here are two of the exchanges quoted at greater length, taken from the transcript prepared for Sky News.
By Paul Goodman
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A colleague of the Prime Minister's once said to me that the Prime Minister would never cooly plan Britain's exit from the European Convention of Human Rights, but would lose his temper with the court after a more than usually patience-snapping judgement - and pull us out. Readers will remember that he told the Commons that the prospect of votes for prisoners made him "sick in the stomach". The Sun reports today that Cameron told Ministers yesterday that Abu Qatada's continued presence in Britain makes his "blood boil". The ECHR is plainly bad for David Cameron's health. The paper also reports that the Prime Minister "is considering a temporary withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights so judges in Strasbourg can’t block Qatada’s expulsion".
By Paul Goodman
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It is nice to be thanked by Matthew Elliott and Alan Halsall for dreaming up the Business for Britain title. But action is better than words - and, in this case, the action has been provided by them (not me) and by, in Matthew's words, the "more than 500 people, from FTSE 100 directors to family-owned businesses that are the backbone of our economy, to articulate the demand that this government, or a future one, gets a better deal from the EU: for jobs, for growth, for Britain". And as Halsall points out this morning on this site, "the British Chambers of Commerce "recently reported that a resounding majority of companies it surveyed backed renegotiating our current relationship with the EU to allow for powers to flow back to the UK".
He puts his finger on the EU's compliance costs, red tape and tit-for-protectionism political ideology. It worries business people, he writes, when they see "political ideology being prioritised ahead of economic practicality". This raises a question: is Business for Britain the nucleus of a business campaign for EU withdrawal? It's a statement of the obvious to begin an answer by pointing that none of us can know what state the political geography of Europe will be by 2017. The Euro will probably still exist in some form, but we can't be sure. The EU will doubtless still do so, too - but, again, the future is impossible to read, and the ideological zeal of the Euro project is straining the patience of the northern European taxpayers who are paying for it.