As David Cameron recovers from the biggest-ever Tory rebellion over Europe, he should beware of another dramatic, self-inflicted injury.
The government has stopped short of giving its official endorsement to Rebecca Harris’s bill to move Britain on to Central European Time. But nor has it quashed the idea, which it could have done. Instead, government whips have allowed the bill to move to its next stage — the so-called money resolution. When this happens, the proposal will be significantly closer to becoming law.
Should the bill pass — with the Prime Minister’s blessing, or even under his instructions — it would exacerbate three of his biggest problems: the Scotland question, the Tory party’s difficulties in the north, and tensions over the influence of Nick Clegg.
On one level, it seems an irrelevance. With the eurozone ablaze and British unemployment rising, the issue of what time British clocks are set to seems trivial. Outside the world of policy wonks, it could fast become one of the coalition’s defining acts. It would affect every voter in the country, from when they draw their curtains in the morning to when they drive home in the evening. For good or for ill, it would be remembered by everyone when they went to the polls in 2015.
Moving to European time would be a huge propaganda gift to Alex Salmond. The changes would mean that in December the sun wouldn’t rise in Edinburgh until after nine in the morning. The new arrangement would boost Salmond’s argument that England and Scotland should go their separate ways. But the problems caused by pushing the clocks forward an hour would start far south of Gretna Green. People everywhere north of Manchester would, for two months of the year, have to start work when it was dark outside. The shift in time would confirm the view that the Tories are a party of southerners, run by southerners for southerners.
The west of England would suffer, too. In mid-winter, Cornwall would not see the sun until after nine. Even Londoners might not like the shift when they realised that they would have to spend the summer trying to fall asleep with the sun still shining.
Given the great potential hostility, why is the change even being considered? Conservative ministers whisper that Cameron wishes only to assuage Nick Clegg, and that the Prime Minister won’t listen when told how much uproar a time-switch would cause. A sour mood prevails even among some Cabinet ministers. In the present circumstances, doing anything to integrate Britain more fully with Brussels, Paris and Berlin would be foolhardy in the extreme. If Cameron won’t kill the bill off, then the darker mornings will be seen by many as a daily reminder that this government is running on Nick Clegg time.