In the hours leading up to Monday’s vote in the Commons on the EU referendum motion, frantic negotiations took place between No. 10 and Nick Clegg’s office. Downing Street wanted the Liberal Democrat leader to stay away from both David Cameron’s statement on the European Council and William Hague’s speech in the debate. It feared that the presence of the deputy Prime Minister would inflame the tinder-dry Tory benches. One Tory remarked that this was a moment when the party would appreciate some space.
Eventually they reached a compromise. The pro-European Clegg would be on the front bench for the statement. But he had to accept Cameron saying that he wanted to ‘refashion our membership of the EU’.
This rather absurd horse-trading is typical of what Cameron has to do when the European issue crops up. He has to try to pull off a coalition and party balancing act. He is leader of an increasingly Eurosceptic party but he is governing with the most Europhile party in British politics. Initially, Cameron tried to deal with this problem by putting it in the deep freeze. But the crisis in the eurozone has put paid to that.
The events of the past few days have tipped the balance in favour of a more explicitly Eurosceptic position. For all its rage at the rebels, No. 10 knows that a situation which leads to almost half of Tory backbenchers voting against a three-line whip needs to be addressed. Cameron and other senior Tories will now begin to articulate more robustly Eurosceptic positions in the coming weeks. But these words must be followed by action or Cameron will soon face even more trouble from his own side.
At a meeting of the Tory hierarchy on Monday to discuss how to contain the rebellion, William Hague surprised several of those present by announcing that the Foreign Office had done detailed preparatory work about repatriating powers from Brussels. If it were helpful, he said, he could mention that in his speech. Other Tories were unaware that Hague’s department had done anything more than cursory research into this subject.
The leadership decided against Hague’s offer. But we can expect to hear the government talk more about which powers it wants to regain from the EU in the coming weeks. Senior figures know that they need to allay the growing suspicion among Tories that Cameron and co aren’t really serious about changing the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union.
The strategy being hatched at the moment is, as one Cabinet minister puts it, ‘a renegotiation for jobs’. The idea is that it won’t sound like Tories ‘banging on about Europe’ if the debate over limiting the EU’s powers is cast in terms of creating jobs.
In the next few weeks, the think-tank Open Europe will publish research on how many more jobs could be created if Britain negotiated various opt-outs. For instance, an exemption from Article 153 would mean that Britain would not have to apply either the Working Time Directive or the Agency Workers Directive. The total boost to the economy from setting aside this article would be more than £6 billion a year.
Those close to the leadership say that this incremental approach to renegotiation is one of the reasons the government won’t commit to a referendum. It expects to bring back powers gradually rather than in one big-bang moment. The Tory leadership also calculates that it will be harder for Clegg to spend political capital trying to block attempts to claw powers back from Brussels if the rationale behind them is to get the economy going.
But the deputy Prime Minister might be more amenable to repatriation than people expect. His intervention on Tuesday morning, which was widely seen as him ruling out any renegotiation, was actually meant to suggest that he was open to looking at a ‘rebalancing of responsibilities’ between the EU and its member states. He just doesn’t want Britain to go it alone.
Alongside the effort to bring powers back will be an attempt to have the EU services directive fully implemented, a pro-free-market move that is expected to give the British economy a significant boost. If the coalition could achieve this, it would help Clegg show his party that the government’s European agenda isn’t just about repatriating powers.
But those around Cameron know that Monday’s rebellion was only partly about Europe. It was also a cry of pain about various aspects of the Prime Minister’s leadership. Even one loyalist says that ‘DC has got to stop channelling Charles I. He leads by consent, not divine right.’
Those close to the Prime Minister calculate that there are, in their phrase, ‘about 30 to 40 shits’ who will take any opportunity to have a pop at him. The Cameron entourage is looking to minimise the influence of these people.
Then there are the more reluctant rebels, the 40 to 50 who felt that they were left with little choice but to defy the whip. One source close to the Prime Minister stresses that No. 10 believes that ‘there wasn’t anger in their hearts’ on Monday and that trust with them can be restored.
But if Cameron is to improve his relationship with his parliamentary party, he will have to look at his political operation. The Tory leader, who is extremely loyal to those close to him, has always been irritated by criticisms of his advisers. But it’s clear that he needs both a new whips’ office and a new pair of parliamentary aides. The Prime Minister should be extremely alarmed that despite his own full-blooded intervention, the whips failed to put a dent in Monday’s rebellion.
Cameron, though, is unlikely to heed the warning. He feels personally and politically comfortable with both the chief whip, Patrick McLoughlin, and his parliamentary private secretary, Desmond Swayne, and would be loath to lose either of them.
This refusal to countenance any change in personnel makes it all the more important that Cameron tackles his government’s European problems. If he doesn’t, his relationship with his party could become fundamentally unbalanced.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 29, 2011