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Invictus: There is no prospect of holding the Conservative Party together without the serious prospect of EU renegotiation

"Invictus" is unable to use their real name because of their employment.

What lies behind today’s confrontation on an EU referendum? David Cameron is said by ‘friends’ to be determined to avoid another Maastricht.  The conventional wisdom has it that he and George Osborne were so scarred by what they witnessed as junior functionaries during the Major government that they will never allow themselves to be held hostage by a small group of true-believers using Parliamentary arithmetic to impose their unrepresentative European views.

But that’s enough about Nick Clegg. In fact, the parallels with the early nineties are there for all to see.  And, paradoxically, it’s a situation of David Cameron’s own making:

A Conservative Prime Minister telling his Party that he is a Eurosceptic while behaving in a way that indicates the opposite.  Check.

Government reassurances that the EU is ‘going our way’ while the evidence of our own eyes tells a different story. Check.

Ministers taking to the airwaves to demonise Eurosceptics.  Check.

Threats and bullying by the whips, including the prospect of deselection.  Check.

Government scoring Pyrrhic victories in Parliament while alienating the grassroots.  Check.

Of course, some things are different to the Maastricht era: from the perspective of the Whips, they are worse.  The Conservative Party as a whole is far more Eurosceptic.  The number of rebels is much larger.   Automatic deference to the leadership is no longer an ingrained habit. The European project is largely discredited.

Something else has changed.  Over the last year and a half Conservative ministers have experienced at first-hand the immense constraints on their decision-making capacities imposed by Brussels as a consequence of Maastricht and subsequent treaty changes: something they are not shy of telling their Parliamentary colleagues or constituency associations.  A number have even become ‘Out-ers’ as a result.

I fear that David Cameron, sitting in Downing Street surrounded by the likes of Jeremy Heywood and Ed Llewellyn, has become so seduced by the internal logic of both Britain’s relationship with the EU and the viability of the Coalition that he has lost sight of a key fact: there is no prospect of holding the Conservative Party together without the serious prospect of EU renegotiation.  The Prime Minister has to take risks with the EU and Mr Clegg instead of being so averse to any conflict with them that he ends up wrecking his relationship with a large part of his base.  Contrary to the glib comparisons, this is not Clause 4 because the adherents of that outdated and unpopular position were doomed by history whereas Eurosceptics have been vindicated by it, as the Eurozone crisis demonstrates.

My advice to the Prime Minister is this: most potential rebels understand and will accept the need for deferred gratification, given the economic crisis and the imperatives of keeping the Lib Dems on board but, in return, you need adopt a more positive tone towards the Eurosceptic agenda and signal a direction of travel that brings the Conservative family together.


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