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Mark Pritchard shows why we are moving closer to a referendum on Europe

By Paul Goodman
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Mark Pritchard urges a renegotiation referendum

The Secretary of the 1922 Committee's Executive has unleashed a whiff of grapeshot at the European Union - and the Government.  He writes in the Daily Telegraph that the EU has become "a kind of occupying force", that Brussels is "a burdensome yoke" and that the British people have endured "nearly four decades of subjugation".  "Recent Europhile comments by senior Liberal Democrat ministers have not helped matters", he writes, and on bailouts, "unquestioning political support from the Conservative backbenches can no longer be taken for granted."

"Conservative MPs will not continue to write blank cheques for workers in Lisbon while people in London and Leicester are joining the dole queue," Pritchard says, demanding a referendum next year on "whether Britain should be part of a political union or of the trade-only relationship we thought we had signed up to".  Downing Street will doubtless try to write Pritchard off as a turbulent eccentric, but he holds a major post on the '22, and his views on the EU are shared by many of his colleagues.  So how strong is Euro-sceptic sentiment on the backbenches?

A new Conservative Euro-sceptic voice is speaking louder

Until recently, these have contained have two main Euro-sceptic voices - not so much individual as collective ones: voices that spoke for different generations with different experiences.  The first has been that of an older generation of Tory MPs who were in the Commons at the time of Maastricht Bill - John Redwood, Bill Cash, Edward Leigh, Bernard Jenkin, and so on.  The second has been that of a younger group of Conservative politicians who weren't, the most prominent being Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan.

A third has been quietly emerging, coming into being roughly at the time of a Commons debate on bailouts in May, and last week's meeting of a new group of over 100 Tory MPs.  George Eustice, formerly a UKIP Euro-candidate and later David Cameron's press spokesman, has been fronting the venture.  Chris Heaton-Harris, a former MEP and another member of the new Parliamentary intake, has also been involved.  He tabled a Government-backed motion in the bailouts debate and his name headed a recent letter about Europe signed by new MPs sent to the Financial Times.

Key issues: fiscal union, the repatriation of powers and a referendum

The world of Conservative Euro-sceptism can be fractious and fissiparous, and one way of probing this new development would be to scrutinise the relationships between those concerned.  I believe it makes more sense to examine their viewpoints, in particular on three of the main EU-related issues: fiscal union, the repatriation of powers, and a referendum.  David Cameron's position is that a fiscal union of the Eurozone countries is in Britain's and Europe's interest.  Eustice has been careful not to contradict him.

Hannan and Carswell have been less accomodating.  The former wants "a swift and orderly unbundling of the euro"; Carswell believes that fiscal union would be "in neither Europe's interest not our own".  Jenkin, writing recently on this site, suggested not only that Cameron's view is wrong but that the Government should, if possible, attempt to forestall fiscal union altogether, since "it will consolidate a voting bloc inside the EU, with France and Germany at its heart. They would be likely to vote together on all EU matters, and UK interests would be sidelined."

What renegotiation can mean

As I say, Eustice has not offered a view but, as we've seen, there is a consensus among the two established voices that at the very least Britain should take "The Redwood option" - that is to say, give up its veto over what other EU nations do together and gain in return the right to opt out of any part of the EU that it chooses.  This possible gambit won strong support in a recent ConservativeHome poll.  There is no such agreement on a referendum (which Eustice has also not pronounced on).

Hannan and Carswell support an In/Out poll, as championed by the People's Pledge.  The older generation tends to want a referendum on a repatriation package.  And it is on such a renegotiation that there appears to be the most agreement.  Admittedly, the Heaton-Harris letter didn't refer directly to it.  Furthermore, the word means different things to different people.  It can mean a limited package, such as that contained in the last Conservative manifesto, which referred only to the charter of fundamental rights, criminal justice, and social and employment legislation.

The leadership is gradually losing control of the backbenches over Europe

Such a deal would leave Britain's membership of the EU essentially intact.  However, renegotiation could also mean the attempted drawing-up of a Swiss or Norweigan-type agreement based on free trade.  In effect, this would mean withdrawal from the EU.  And Eustace has expressed a view on renegotiation, saying that "it is absolutely imperative that Britain has a very coherent plan, as to what we want the European Union to do in the future, how we start to take powers back so we actually have a new relationship with the European Union that is settled."

There is debate within the longer-established Euro-sceptic circles about whether or not the new group is a cunning Government ploy - intended to steer Tory Euro-sceptics away from clear support for a referendum in some form.  But whether Downing Street, the Treasury or the Whips' Office had a hand in it is ultimately irrelevant, since Number Ten simply can't control what roughly a third of the Parliamentary Party think.  And it's clear that the latter believes that there should be a renegotiation, perhaps a major one.

We are just a little bit closer to a referendum than we were a fortnight ago

It would be very difficult for a government to undertake such a renegotiation without a referendum on its contents.  In quieter times, we would be a long way away from such a repatriation package, and would be moving towards, in all likelihood, a larger renegotiation proposal in the next Tory manifesto.  Cameron would doubtless claim that the necessities of coalition make renegotiation impossible. (Note Danny Alexander's piece in today's Times).

But as Euroland's crisis intensifies, debate on fiscal union is suddenly very live.  And for a growing number of Conservative MPs, no new treaty to agree fiscal union should be signed without a renegotiation package for Britain being signed as a quid pro quo.  As I say, such a deal would require endorsement in a referendum to gain popular legitimacy.  By seizing on on this point today, Pritchard has demonstrated that Cameron will find the new movement very hard to control.


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