David Blackburn

The Tories look evasive on Europe, but now is not the time to clarify

The Tories look evasive on Europe, but now is not the time to clarify
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The phrase “we will not let matters rest” sounds slightly menacing, but it’s completely opaque. Is it time for the Tories to define what they mean by it? The leading article in the Times argues that perhaps it is.

‘Now that the Irish have ratified the Lisbon treaty at the second attempt, the Conservative Party needs to listen to Robert Peel. In 1834 Peel issued a manifesto in Tamworth in which he said the Conservative Party should now accept the Great Reform Act which it had vigorously opposed. Now that David Cameron finds himself struggling to clarify the circumstances in which he will offer the nation a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, he could do worse than echo Peel’s sentiment.’

The implication is that once the treaty is ratified the only sensible course of action is to let matters rest, however distasteful. I agree; a referendum on a ratified treaty would count for nothing, unless the government wanted to withdraw from the EU, which the Tories do not desire. But, the time to clarify policy towards an enacted Lisbon is once it has been ratified, not before. Claims that the party is split on Europe are premature rather than unfounded: Boris Johnson’s and Dan Hannan’s comments yesterday illustrate that there are Tory Euroscpetics who want a referendum on Britain’s future in the EU, let alone on the Lisbon treaty. Why exacerbate those tensions now? This conference should be dominated by the Tories’ radical vision for Britain and a preparation for government, not reactionary navel-gazing. Debating Europe represents a tactical blunder: the Lisbon treaty seems set to become an egregious fact of life, but it is neither the Tories’ fight nor their fault. All they should do is offer a referendum until the treaty is ratified and condemn Labour’s broken promise. Explaining how they will pursue matters thereafter should be saved until that hypothetical becomes a reality.