Sunday, 1 November 2009

Anti-Europeans threaten Tory civil war to make Major era 'look like tea party'

The Conservative Party does not have a policy towards the European Union, beyond not liking what it sees at all, yet without wanting to get Britain out.

With time is about to run out on the 'waiting for Vaclav' excuse, there are two must-read pieces today on what might happen next, both written from by right-of-centre voices: one of analysis and one of advocacy.

The first is Peter Oborne's analysis in The Observer, reporting that ditching David Cameron's earlier "cast-iron guarantee" in a Sun article of a referendum on "any Treaty arising from these negotiations" has involved agreeing "face-saving formula" which has arisen from what Oborne calls "a series of sordid negotiations between the Conservatives and executives from The Sun newspaper".

Oborne still believes this will leave a "fundamental instability" in the party's long-term European policy

The other is the first major opening bid in that longer-term debate which Oborne previews, posted by ConservativeHome founder Tim Montgomerie, who The Telegraph regards as the 21st most influential British Conservative.

Montgomerie is on-message when it comes to ditching Cameron's earlier "cast-iron" pledge. This is, indeed, the first outing for what Oborne calls "face-saving formula" which Oborne reports has arisen from "a series of sordid negotiations between the Conservatives and executives from The Sun newspaper".

But what is the price of that support now?

David Cameron's opening offer is to pledge a referendum on any future Treaties. But everyone knows that this would mainly be a gesture - as there is absolutely no appetite for any future Treaties for a generation. (Though if a pledge applied to all new Treaties, including the accession of new member states, it could have one real effect of perhaps diluting traditional Tory support for any further enlargement including, in effect, closing the door to Turkish membership, which the Tory frontbench favour). This Cameronite idea would be an impeccably conservative Euroscepticism - a positional conservatism of "this far and no further" without seeking to reverse the past. But that is not nearly enough for those for whom the status quo is absolutely not an option.

And so Montgomerie demands a fundamental renegotiation of British membership, to be trusted only if led by a strong Eurosceptic such as David Davis or John Redwood.

Or else? Montgomerie issues a blood curdling threat that the anti-EU forces would be ready to make the last Tory EU civil war "look like a tea party".

The effort to renegotiate must be real and all necessary guerilla tactics used to get our way out of arrangements that the British people have never okayed ... If Britain's relationship with the EU is fundamentally the same after five years of Conservative government the internal divisions that ended the last Tory period in government will look like a tea party in comparison.

There are two fascinating things about this.

One is that the most strongly Eurosceptic elements in the Conservative Party have been pretty confident that David Cameron is, at heart, one of them. Oborne revisits the history of the pledge to leave the EPP, and argues that it saved a flagging 2005 Cameron 2005 leadership bid from early failure. Oborne today writes that "had Cameron not formed this alliance with core Eurosceptics, he would never have become leader". (It is often overlooked how enthusiastically Daniel Hannan endorsed Cameron in the leadership contest, though Hannan is unusual in believing the EPP pledge was a point of principle, rather than campaign tactics, for David Cameron: Hannan has written that Cameron was against joining the EPP as long ago as 1991).

Yet the emerging Westminster village consensus that Cameron will not be able to govern without selling out those same core Eurosceptics - including among commentators on the right, such as Peter Oborne and Matthew Parris yesterday, recommending that Cameron stay firmly on the fence.

(Indeed the growing prominence of this argument may explain why the Eurosceptics now counter with the threat of guerrilla warfare, to say that he will not be able to govern without them. The Eurosceptics tend to express enormous confidence that their cause will prevail, but there is uncertainty beneath this too. Montgomerie told a Fabian fringe meeting in Brighton that he feared that so much political capital had been spent on leaving the EPP that the leadership lacked the appetite for any major EU battle. The strength of today'slanguage in part in part reflects that).

So the odds must be that David Cameron will disappoint his anti-European supporters, just as Tony Blair disappointed his pro-Europeans (when there was rather less ambiguity about what Blair's own view was).

Taken seriously, a "fundamental renegotiation" is an enormous demand. And there is a bigger reason for Cameron to be wary of such demands from his Eurosceptics.

In their Eurosceptic advocacy the prominent troika of Daniel Hannan, Douglas Carswell and Tim Montgomerie can all be regarded as "Tory Trots". I mean that quite seriously, not as a cheap pejorative shot, but as an accurate description of the political strategy (as applied to their means only, rather than their ends, of course) which they apply to advocacy around the EU.

By which I mean this: All three are on the record about what they ultimately seek: the end of British membership of the European Union. My point is that arguments for goals short of this might well be best understood as what Trotskyists call "transitional and provisional demands".

(I am grateful to the anonymous authors of wikipedia for providing the concise description that "Trotsky held that, while socialists should not hide their programme, it was essential to plan a possible route to it"; that seems to me precisely what these supporters of 'Better Off Out' are seeking to do).

David Cameron acceded to one of these demands, in withdrawing his party from the European People's Party. If that has proved a bigger deal than he suspected, he should be aware that Daniel Hannan was arguing all along that it would prove a "truly revolutionary" episode. The next argument is for a fundamental renegotiation.

In both cases, what pro-European Tory forces that remain argue that the proposals are unworkable. The Eurosceptics disagree. But it is worth noting too that, if your aim is to get out, the efficacy and workability of the arrangements by which you move towards the exit is not your primary concern. (Note too that nine out of ten of the top Tory blogs are for Britain getting out too, with the only ambiguity being quite how far Iain Dale's strong Euroscepticism goes; so expect noisy advocacy, but do not expect the Tory blogs to be too much concerned about whether a renegotiated membership would work in practice).

So it may be that David Cameron may have to either renegotiate Britain's place in the EU, or take on the Tory Eurosceptic heart in a way that he has never tried to before.

Against all of his instincts, he may struggle to avoid either one Clause Four moment or another.

Which one? In the words of John Major, we may have to 'wait and see'.

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