Conservative Diary


9 Jul 2013 15:01:22

Summer of Tory love soured by European Arrest Warrant stance

By Paul Goodman
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James Wharton's EU referendum bill and Theresa May's Abu Qatada deportation have sweetened the mood on the Conservative backbenches, particularly as far as the Home Secretary is concerned. However, I'm picking up signals that her stance on EU criminal justice measures is seriously souring the spirits of some (which are ever mercurial).  May's position is to opt out of almost 100 of the measures but to opt back into about 35 of them, including the arrest warrant.

One very senior backbencher told me that the move is incompatible with any serious Downing Street plan to repatriate powers, and another claimed that the Government is rushing the Commons to vote on the matter, next Monday, before opposition has the chance to gather momentum.  In the light of the decision, Downing Street's charm offensive, capped with a barbecue at Number 10 recently, was described to me as "offensive and patronising".

There were shouts of "shame" from the Conservative benches when the Home Secretary announced her decision earlier.  It's hard to estimate whether the Government will be opposed from the backbenches next week by more than the usual suspects, but EU policy is a time-bomb for David Cameron.  I keep pointing out that renegotiation policy has the potency to knock the Prime Minister off his stride, and even Ed Miliband's woes with Unite don't obviate that fact.

6 Jul 2013 07:13:09

Well done, Wharton – now the rest of the eurosceptic movement needs to fire up the engines

By Mark Wallace
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By common consent, James Wharton acquitted himself extremely well yesterday - after weeks in the spotlight since he topped the Private Member's Bill ballot, he steered his referendum proposal to a large victory, and spoke with intelligence as well as good humour.

It's a sad reflection on the current party system that had it not been for his good luck in the ballot, Wharton would not have been given the opportunity to demonstrate his abilities. Hopefully this experience will encourage the leadership not only to make more use of him in future, but also to better appreciate the unplumbed reserves of talent sitting on the backbenches.

With an in/out referendum becoming a serious possibility, now is the time to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the eurosceptic movement. Indeed, a new analysis by Weber Shandwick [PDF] provides a useful insight into the state of play, and the various voices in the field.

Continue reading "Well done, Wharton – now the rest of the eurosceptic movement needs to fire up the engines" »

5 Jul 2013 08:00:03

CCHQ unveils poster to mark today's debate on James Wharton's referendum bill

Screen shot 2013-07-05 at 07.24.16
By Paul Goodman

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David Cameron's charm offensive (target: Conservative MPs) and Grant Shapps's publicity offensive (target: voters) continues this morning with the launch of a poster to mark today's second reading of James Wharton's referendum bill.

The poster will be displayed at what CCHQ describe as "high-traffic locations".  Watch out for one if you're passing that digital billboard on the Vauxhall roundabout. (I apologise to our non-London based readers for this piece of capitalcitycentricbias.)

The poster won't change anything, of course, but is all part and parcel of the more purposeful Party activity of the last few weeks. The Prime Minister hosted a barbecue for Tory MPs in Downing Street's garden earlier this week, and e-mailed party activists about today's bill.

Continue reading "CCHQ unveils poster to mark today's debate on James Wharton's referendum bill" »

29 Jun 2013 11:55:20

James Wharton's Referendum Bill puts pressure on Miliband to rise above dithering tempered by opportunism

By Andrew Gimson 
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Miliband Ed OfficialJames Wharton’s Referendum Bill, which the Commons will debate for the first time next Friday, is starting to concentrate the minds of the more alert members of the Opposition. For while the Labour Party has said it will boycott that particular Bill, which it pretends to find too partisan, it knows it cannot indefinitely boycott the question of whether or not the British people should be allowed to decide whether or not we remain in the European Union.

Today’s Guardian reports that some members of the Shadow Cabinet now believe Labour should call for a European referendum as early as May 22 next year, when the European and local elections will be held. One can see why such a proposal might attract them. It would not merely enable Labour to claim that it was “more democratic” than the Tories, because it wanted to consult the people sooner. An early referendum might cause carnage among the Tories, by exposing the split between those who want to get us out of the EU and those who want to stay in.

Mr Wharton’s Bill seeks to write in to law David Cameron’s proposal for a referendum in 2017, by which time he hopes to have renegotiated the terms of our membership. Ed Miliband and his colleagues are worried that were they to commit themselves to this timetable, and were they to get back into power in 2015, their first two years in office might be dominated by the impending European referendum, which they might then lose.

Continue reading "James Wharton's Referendum Bill puts pressure on Miliband to rise above dithering tempered by opportunism" »

19 Jun 2013 11:04:25

An invitation from Grant Shapps to sponsor James Wharton's EU referendum bill

Screen shot 2013-06-19 at 11.01.30
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.


18 Jun 2013 08:25:56

The hands are the hands of Clarke, but the voice is the voice of Cameron

Screen shot 2013-06-18 at 08.33.52

Jacob blesses Isaac, by Jacob Assereto (1600-49)

By Paul Goodman
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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.

16 Jun 2013 08:32:42

If Cameron is to defuse Leigh's criticisms, he must get on the front foot over renegotiation

By Paul Goodman
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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.

12 Jun 2013 11:55:32

New EU referendum campaign launched: Let Britain Decide

By Mark Wallace
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LETBRITAINDECIDEGetting 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:

  • It is almost 40 years since the people were last given a say - and European integration has raced on in that time, beyond anything that was agreed in 1975
  • The vast majority of voters want a referendum
  • While the Conservatives want a referendum by 2017, Labour and the Lib Dems are opposing letting the people decide
  • If you want a referendum, it has to go through Parliament - so voters are urged to use the site to lobby their MP to support the Wharton Bill.

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.

10 Jun 2013 11:16:35

Seven ministries have gone to war with the EU in the last fortnight

EU Exit
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:

  • DWP: First, Iain Duncan Smith announced that he would fight a legal battle against the EU Commission to defend Britain's protections against welfare tourism
  • Foreign Office: Then William Hague presented his proposal for a red card system which would give member states' parliaments the right to veto Commission proposals
  • Department of Justice: Last Friday, Chris Grayling fired warning shots over new, job-destroying EU data protection proposals - an issue he followed up in the Sunday Telegraph
  • Home Office: On the same day, Theresa May told her opposite numbers at Europe's home affairs ministries that the rule on free movement of peoples must be changed to prevent migrants travelling to take advantage of the UK taxpayer, rather than to work
  • DEFRA: Yesterday, we learned that fisheries minister Richard Benyon intends to take back fishing quotas for allocation to British-based vessels rather than French and Spanish trawlers 
  • Treasury: Meanwhile, the Treasury told the Sun on Sunday of George Osborne's intention to fight the EU Commission over plans to remove a raft of VAT exemptions
  • Attorney General: Today, Dominic Grieve will appear in the Supreme Court to fight attempts to force Britain to give prisoners the vote - a legal dispute that will be followed shortly by a vote in Parliament on the issue

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.

31 May 2013 08:31:22

Hague calls for national parliaments to veto EU Commission plans

By Paul Goodman
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HagueSquareThe 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.