William Hague is now one of the most pro-European Conservative member of the Cabinet. The man once reviled by the bien-pensant for his views on this subject is now regarded by the Liberal Democrats as a brake on his more sceptical colleagues and praised in Brussels for his pragmatism. He told his party’s conference that he wants Britain’s membership of the European Union to be about more than just the single market and to extend to ‘co-operation on climate change and other great issues facing us’.
In today’s Conservative party, this is unusual. When I asked various ministers in Birmingham if they agreed with it, nearly all said emphatically not. Even allowing for the fact that Conservative ministers are never more Eurosceptic than when they are at conference and have had a glass of wine or two, their obstinacy was still striking.
Friends of the Foreign Secretary maintain that he has not changed his views on the European Union since he was leader. He is still the same man who campaigned to keep the pound, they argue. A fair point: it is not his views that have changed but the party’s. The Conservatives have become far more Eurosceptic: the belief that Britain should leave if it can’t negotiate far better terms is now a mainstream position.
Tellingly, after the Mail on Sunday revealed that the Education Secretary Michael Gove holds this view, Cabinet colleagues wanted it known that they agreed with him or that they had long been of that opinion. There was also no rubbishing of Gove’s views from either No. 10 or No. 11. In part this is because the Education Secretary, who is a regular guest at Chequers, is the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s closest ally in the Cabinet. But it is also a reflection of political reality: a Conservative Downing Street concerned about party management cannot be seen to slap down someone for being too Eurosceptic.
It is easy to forget what a change this is. One veteran of the Major years observed to me this week that in his day Gove would have had either to deny that he thought Britain should threaten to leave, or quit the government. This Euroscepticism isn’t limited to MPs and activists. Party donors now firmly oppose the reach of Brussels. The party chairman Andrew Feldman’s own position reflects this.
The people least happy with Gove’s démarche are at the Foreign Office. There has been much grumbling from King Charles Street about how the Education Secretary is undercutting Britain’s influence. There are warnings that his intervention might result in a worse EU budget settlement for Britain. One senior Foreign Office source observes, icily, that the Foreign Secretary ‘has very little patience with self-indulgence by colleagues either senior or junior’.
Hague wants his party to demonstrate ‘strategic patience’. Certainly, what Downing Street needs most when it comes to Europe is time. David Cameron will try and buy some this autumn with a commitment that, if re-elected, he will renegotiate Britain’s membership of the European Union and then hold a referendum on the results.
As a precursor to this renegotiation, the coalition is undertaking a ‘balance of competences’ review. This might sound a thoroughly dull, bureaucratic exercise. But it is terribly important because for the first time it will reveal just how much the European Union influences our national life. It will call for evidence from government departments, business, civil society, think tanks and parliamentary committees. And the government plans to publish the evidence submitted.
Eurosceptic ministers regard this as a great opportunity, as a chance to educate people as to how much the EU impinges on their ability to make decisions. Several ministers have been radicalised by their experience in office, offended by how circumscribed they are by the Brussels raj. One remarks, with relish, that the evidence presented by departments will ‘show us who really runs the place and who is really a Eurosceptic’. The review won’t make any recommendations, but when it concludes in 2014 it will form the evidential basis for renegotiation.
Cameron’s plan is, before Christmas, to commit to a referendum after the next election. The Cameroons hope that this will be enough to satisfy the party’s Eurosceptics. Conservative strategists believe such a move would check Ukip’s advance. The prospect of Nigel Farage’s merry band pushing the Conservatives into third place in the European elections in 2014 sends many of them into cold sweat, and worse.
But the Cameron strategy is not without risk. Having committed to a renegotiation, he will — if he is still Prime Minister after the next election — have to bring something substantial home from Europe. Once you’ve declared that the status quo is unacceptable, you cannot claim that all is well because the National Health Service has been exempted from the working time directive.
The other risk is where Cameron’s party is. Given that the current plan is for the referendum to offer a choice between the new terms and out, the Prime Minister would need to bring back a radically better deal than Britain currently has to prevent his party from splitting on the issue.
One insider calculates that Cameron has a one in five chance of achieving this. He speculates that, ‘If David can’t get much, he can split the party or say out and have 90 per cent of the party behind him.’
Cameron, though, would be reluctant to advocate leaving even if the renegotiation was a disappointment; he genuinely does see benefits to Britain’s EU membership. Some in Downing Street also caution that advocating withdrawal would pit the party against business. Indeed, the greatest weakness of the ‘better off out’ side is that, unlike the campaign against the single currency, it hasn’t garnered serious business support.
The party’s troubled history on matters European, combined with the limits of coalition, had meant that many senior Conservatives wanted to park the European issue for at least five years. But events at home and abroad have made that impossible. Cameron is now faced with making decisions this side of Christmas that will determine the future of Britain’s relationship with Europe.
But for Cameron to have a chance of getting what he wants, he needs to know what he wants. A referendum is not a strategy. What he really requires is a clear vision for what kind of relationship with, or membership of, the European Union he wants for Britain. That can then guide him through the interminable summits that lie ahead.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012