David Cameron and Donald Tusk have been discussing Britain’s beef with the European Union over a dinner of beef this evening. The European Council president has just left, telling reporters there was 'no deal'.
Top of the Prime Minister’s menu was the issue of benefits that has been so chewy for him during his renegotiation. Cameron now appears to be seeking to beef up (sorry) the emergency brake offer that his eurosceptic critics described only on Friday as a ‘sick joke’, arguing that it must come into force straight after the referendum result, that the present levels of EU migration to the UK could be sufficient to trigger it, and that it can stay in place ‘long enough to resolve the underlying problem’. The emergency brake would function as a ‘stop gap’ until a more permanent solution can be found.
On the Sunday Politics today, Steve Baker, who is the co-chair of Conservatives for Britain, said that this was ‘not a powerful thing at all to take to the country’, that it wouldn’t make much difference to levels of migration, that it was a ‘red herring’, ‘undeliverable’ and a ‘bad joke’. He added:
‘And I think that they’ve ended up trying to manufacture the appearance of success out of very little.’
Given Cameron seems to be pitching much lower than he was even a few weeks ago, it is easy for his eurosceptic critics such as Baker to criticise the brake plan as purely cosmetic and meaningless.
But it would be even easier for Baker and co were their own ‘Leave’ tribes not engaged in the most spectacular internecine warfare. The Wycombe MP today told Andrew Neil that ‘I’m not knocking lumps out of anybody, and I very much regret they’ve erupted into the press’.
He added that everyone involved wishes to reach some sort of solution, but then admitted that ‘given the severe concerns of my colleagues it’s quite clear there are going to have to be material changes in Vote Leave in order to carry parliamentarians with the campaign’. Asked what that meant, Baker said ‘there’s going to have to be a greater degree of involvement with parliamentarians so that they feel they’re meaningfully helping to shape the campaign’. This sounds rather as though some of the MPs agitating for a sort of ‘material change’ involving the departure of Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliot from Vote Leave are feeling a little left out and under-used at the moment. And David Cameron knows only too well that eurosceptics feeling left out often leads to bad things happening. Or at the very least, inconvenient things like this whole referendum, prompted in part by MPs feeling that the Prime Minister was ignoring him and trooping through the wrong lobbies as rebels. He must be glad that they’re directing their fire mainly at one another for the time being.