Nick Herbert reckons “a majority” of the Conservative parliamentary party are Eurosceptic, but will vote to stay in a reformed European Union. He has set up a new group, Conservatives for Reform in Europe, to represent these “pragmatic Conservatives”, and today announces more Conservatives who are joining it.
In this interview, he denies being a Cameron stooge and claims the Prime Minister has “put a spoke in the EU ratchet”. Herbert says “most of those who are criticising these reforms now actually want to leave”. He maintains that we do still have border controls, and disputes Paul Goodman’s claim that Cameron has abandoned a large number of renegotiation demands.
Because he ran the campaign to stop Britain joining the euro, Herbert has always been thought of as a Eurosceptic. But in this interview, the MP for Arundel & South Downs, and former minister, makes with fervour the case for staying inside the EU.
ConHome: “What’s the history of your opinions about leaving or staying in the EU. Were you ever in favour of leaving?”
Herbert: “I led Business for Sterling and we set up the national No campaign. There’s the award winning poster over there [framed on the wall of his office, with the first and last letters of the word "euro" formed from a pair of handcuffs]. The slogan as you can see was ‘europe yes, euro no’.
“Last year I then wrote my book, Why Vote Conservative, and in that book I weighed up the arguments for and against being a member of the European Union. I concluded that providing we do get the reforms that the Prime Minister is setting out, that it would be in the British national interest to remain in, and that’s why I’m willing to lead this campaign.
“We have no love for the European Union. We have significant concerns about the direction of travel the EU has been taking. We worry a lot about the growth in regulation. We worry about the loss of sovereignty. We worry about the lack of democracy.
“And we worry about net levels of migration to our country. And we want to see those things addressed, but if they are, I think we take a hard-headed view about whether it remains in our interests to stay. And that I think is what the body of the Conservative Party will and should do.”
ConHome: “On this migration question which you mention, surely all this business about in-work benefits is a bit beside the point, especially as we’re putting up the minimum wage. People come here to work, not to obtain benefits.”
Herbert: “The Prime Minister’s proposal is precisely to tackle in-work benefits. We’ve already taken action to deal with the situation where people might come over and not work. He draws the distinction between the right to work and the right to claim. The fundamental point is this: our welfare system is different to that of most our European partners.”
ConHome: “I saw the letter in the Daily Telegraph about your campaign, which I think 22 MPs had signed.”
Herbert: “Yes, they’re our founding members.”
ConHome: “Have you recruited some others?”
Herbert: “Watch this space… We are gathering support, and I think we will continue to do so. Of course at the moment the payroll isn’t allowed to declare, and most of them have not done so, and that of course immediately removes a third of the parliamentary party…
“What we’re trying to appeal to is what I think is the Eurosceptic middle ground, because I think the body of the party is essentially Eurosceptic, but who on balance would want to remain provided there’s reform. And I believe that will be a majority of the parliamentary party. We know there’s support out there. Either at the moment it’s private support, or it’s support that will be revealing itself.”
ConHome: “Perhaps you’re going along to the House of Lords to persuade the Duke of Omnium to come on board?”
Herbert: “If anybody thinks we are going to have just our 20 founding members they will have to eat their words.”
ConHome: “Are you going to have a wider membership as well?”
Herbert: “Yes. The significance of what we’re doing – and I think this may have been missed so far – is that we don’t just want to set up, if you like, a parliamentary ginger group. Conservative Campaign Headquarters has been told it cannot operate during a European Referendum campaign, it must be officially neutral in this matter, as must local parties.
“So there is a cross-party campaign, Britain Stronger In Europe, which is if you like an umbrella campaign. But I think there will need to be an organisation for Conservatives who want to campaign to remain in the EU, once they’ve seen the reforms. So there will need to be an organisation for that.”
ConHome: “So you won’t just be subsumed – you won’t just take shelter under this umbrella?”
Herbert: “No. What we’re building is a Conservative campaign that will then work alongside the Britain Stronger In campaign, in the same way that the Labour In campaign, which is led by Alan Johnson, works alongside…”
ConHome: “So you are the Alan Johnson of the Conservative Party!”
Herbert: “I wouldn’t dream in any way of comparing myself to Alan Johnson, a politician I greatly admire.”
ConHome: “What do you say when unkind people accuse you of being a Cameron stooge?”
Herbert: “Well what I’d say is that’s a first! I’ve heard it all now. I’ve never been accused of that before.”
ConHome: “I don’t think it’s so much an accusation touching on your personal integrity. People are just trying to distinguish what is stage management by Number Ten and what is actually genuine.”
Herbert: “I thought and others thought and Charlotte Vere who is the executive director of this campaign had been thinking also for some time that there needed to be a body that was making the case for reform…
“There wasn’t a voice for that. That’s what I felt was needed, and of course I talked to the Prime Minister about that. The genesis of this is that I was having a conversation with him, and said ‘I think this case is going by default – there needs to be something’.
“So of course he supports the formation of this campaign, but I am chairing this campaign and I’m not a minister, and I’m not a party appointee, and Charlotte Vere is the independent director. We have set this up as an independent campaign, albeit that it is quite clearly supporting the position that the Prime Minister is taking.”
ConHome: “Can you really quite honestly say this renegotiation is not a retreat from what Cameron quite recently promised? On for example the emergency brake, which was I think to do with numbers of people coming, and is now to do with benefits.”
Herbert: “Well Cameron himself made a virtue of that. He said he thought that the benefits solution was a better solution than the emergency brake. So I don’t see that as a retreat. It’s an alternative mechanism.”
ConHome: “Paul Goodman wrote a piece on ConservativeHome this morning [Monday], Cameron’s Vanishing Renegotiation, listing ten aims which Cameron has first proposed and then dropped.”
Herbert: “Yes, I disagree.”
ConHome: “You’re challenging Goodman?”
Herbert: “I would challenge my very good friend Paul Goodman, who I agree with about almost everything else. I don’t think that his charge sheet is fair, and I think there is an answer to all of those points, and I’m happy to make it. And I think he’s got one or two things wrong. And I can do that.
“But I think the bigger point is this. When the Prime Minister first made his speech to Bloomberg, and said there needed to be change, at that time, there was also the prospect of imminent treaty change, because the eurozone countries want to integrate more deeply.
“That treaty change will happen, but not to the same timetable as the renegotiation that the Prime Minister is seeking. And so I accept that there has been that change. But I do think the reforms that he has targeted are in the areas where there is particular public concern.
“And I think that they should be welcomed. So they are in the areas of migration, they are in the areas of reducing regulation, they are in the areas of tackling ever closer union protecting Britain from deeper eurozone integration…
“The truth is that most of those who are criticising these reforms now actually want to leave, and there is no renegotiation, there is no set of reforms which would satisfy them if they were being honest.”
ConHome: “What is unfair on Goodman’s charge sheet, though?”
Herbert: “For instance, it suggested that changes had not been made in relation to benefits that we were paying. Well one of the things we have been able to do is deal with the situation where people could come over and claim benefit for a period of time. We’ve now put a limit on the amount of time that they would be able to be looking for work before they could then have to leave the country.
“So I can and will set out a detailed rebuttal to all of these things. Some of the proposals which are made are tantamount to a set of demands that could not be met except actually by withdrawal.”
ConHome: “But didn’t Cameron give us hope that we were going to get some of these things?”
Herbert: “Yes, but if the circumstances change, where you know that treaty agreement is not going to be possible, or if there is an alternative means of securing the same outcome, then I don’t think it’s fair…
“The very act of holding the referendum, and announcing that the referendum will be held, and embarking on the renegotiation, has I think had the effect of putting a spoke in the ratchet, to stop that ratchet turning.
“And what I think the reforms will do in totality is not just stop but will actually begin to turn around the process. And that is what I think is important about this set of reforms. And I don’t therefore think they should be dismissed…we will be able to have border control, we will be able to keep our currency…”
ConHome: “We won’t be able to have border control, will we?”
Herbert: “Yes we do have border control in this country. We have borders that everyone has to pass through and you have to show your passport, whether you’re an EU citizen or not.
“And we turn away people who are EU citizens who pose a threat to our country. We’ve turned away 6,000 EU citizens since David Cameron became Prime Minister. And that’s why the suggestion that was made that asylum seekers or migrants who arrive in Europe, including the sex attackers in Cologne, would within a period of three years arrive in Britain, was so very wrong.
“Because for a start they could not get an EU passport for a period of years, in Germany’s case at least eight years. Secondly if they committed a criminal offence in Germany they would be removed from Germany, and wouldn’t be able to get a passport anyway.
“And thirdly, we reserve the right not to admit people who pose a threat to our country… The paradox is that the very people who are opposing EU co-operation in relation to criminals are then making the allegation that we will have to accept these criminals.”
ConHome: “Who was saying that the Cologne sex offenders would come over here?”
Herbert: “Initially it was said by the Leave campaign, and by Nigel Farage. They were deliberately playing on public fears, and I do think it was scandalous and irresponsible and not true, that those people would simply arrive in three years’ time in our country. We are outside Schengen. We do have border control.”
ConHome: “I must say that’s not the general public impression.”
Herbert: “It’s the confusion of free movement to work for people who have an EU passport, which you still have to show, and passportless travel, which is what the rest of Europe has. That is why we will be in a relatively advantageous position if we secure these reforms. We will be outside the Schengen area, outside the eurozone, but actually have access to this market.
“They’ve been raising these fears about the arrival of people who are going to threaten our country – and have been opposing the kind of co-operation within the EU that helps to deal with these people. They have been generally sceptical of or opposing measures to share intelligence, opposing the sharing of DNA, opposing the European Arrest Warrant.”
ConHome: “I must say I’m jolly against the European Arrest Warrant. I just don’t like the idea of being arrested for something which might not even be an offence in this country.”
Herbert: “Well let me tell you, the public aren’t. The public very strongly support the European Arrest Warrant, and under that warrant we have been able to bring back to this country people including terrorist suspects, and remove people to other countries that are suspects – thousands of criminals.
“And it would have taken far longer, years, to do that under previous arrangements. And I think it’s a good example of a Conservative pragmatism, that what our Home Secretary did is opt out of a huge raft of crime and justice directives, but then pragmatically opt back in to those where it does make sense for us to share… We don’t have an ideological objection to sharing where it’s in our interests.”
ConHome: “Enoch Powell would. Ever since Sir Robert Walpole, one has become and has remained Prime Minister by controlling the House of Commons, I would say in both Walpole’s case and Cameron’s by very skilful use of patronage…”
Herbert: “Why do I know where this question’s going?”
ConHome: “…but modern politicians are much more easily bought. You don’t have to be made Paymaster General and build yourself a Palladian mansion in Norfolk. Do you think it would be fair to say that for Cameron – and I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism – party management really takes precedence over the merits of the case?”
Herbert: “Be careful of those who say that holding a referendum is just about party management. There is a principled case for holding the referendum.”
ConHome: “You’re not interested in getting a ministerial post?”
Herbert: “To be honest, I don’t think about these things.”
ConHome: “Well you’re very unusual.”
Herbert: “I appreciate that it is unusual, and no one ever believes me. The truth is that the thing I am focused on entirely at the moment is this referendum.”
Nick Herbert will reply to Paul Goodman’s “Cameron’s Vanishing Negotiation Article” of Monday on this site next Monday.