David Cameron’s majority in this new Parliament is about the size of John Major’s in 1992 – so comparisons between his Maastricht Bill and Cameron’s EU Referendum Bill were bound to be drawn. The most obvious similarity is that the latter will be amendable, just as the former was. The Major Government’s Bill was in the most difficulty when Conservative rebels teamed up with the Labour and Liberal Democrat front benches. Cameron will be alert to similar manoeuvres this time, which are more likely to be related, if they happen, to procedure than content. It is hard to imagine a new Labour leader teaming up with Tory backbenchers to demand, for example, the effective repeal of Section Two of the European Communities Act 1972.
But though there are undoubtedly similarities between Major’s vantage and Cameron’s, there are also significant differences. The 1992 poll saw Major’s Commons majority fall. The 2010 election saw Cameron gain one for the first time. Major inherited a party bruised by the deposition of Margaret Thatcher. Cameron has been the Conservatives’ leader for the best part of ten years. Maastricht was an EU-wide Treaty. Any treaty negotiation is likely to follow Cameron’s proposed renegotiation and referendum, not precede it. The Maastricht rebels were united in not wanting the treaty. There is no real opposition among today’s Tories to the referendum, and counsels on a renegotiation are divided.
A body of backbench opinion believes that, when push comes to shove, Britain must stay in the EU. Another body wants it to leave (at least nine MPs, according to Better Off Out). Somewhere between them is another group, perhaps the largest of all, that would be willing to see Britain stay if a meaningful renegotiation can be achieved – which inevitably provokes the question of what this might look like. The Conservative Manifesto is a suggestive guide. It references the In/Out referendum, staying out of the Eurozone, the protection of Britain’s financial services, further reform of CAP, less business regulation and NATO membership.
It also says that “we want to see powers flowing away from Brussels, not to it”. At first glance, this would be consistent with the repealing the effects of Articles Two and Three (a cause which unites many Conservative Eurosceptics). However, it goes on to say that national parliaments should “be able to work together to block unwanted European legislation”, which would appear to rule out unilateral action. Furthermore, the manifesto is unambiguously supportive of the Single Market – and thus, by implication, of the legal superstructure that supports it. Although there is a reference to “the scale of migration” in recent years, there is no commitment to restrict welfare benefits further.
All this suggests a renegotiation that falls well short of the “fundamental” one favoured by some backbench Eurosceptics. ConservativeHome is a Eurosceptic site, and will urge a No vote when the referendum comes – assuming that it is not fouled up by the Lords, which has become more assertive since Major’s day. However, we believe that the manifesto offers little encouragement to those who favour a large-scale repatriation of powers, that attempts to foist such a programme on Cameron would be dubious, and that other EU countries and the EU institutions would be unwilling to agree to demands to unravel the federalist project.
There is a means of reconciling these differences. On the one hand, Cameron would drop his demand that all members of the Cabinet endorse any renegotiation settlement he agrees during the referendum campaign that would follow, or resign. Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, John Whittingdale, Javid Javid and others would thus be free to campaign for a No vote, and campaign for one alongside members of other parties. On the other, they and other Ministers would not criticise the Prime Minister’s renegotiation plans before any deal is agreed, and Eurosceptic backbenchers would drop their more ambitious plans for renegotiation.
There is admittedly a risk that a close referendum result would leave nothing resolved and the Party divided. But the cause of that risk is the plebiscite itself – not an agreement to disagree. A clear-cut result would probably yield one of two outcomes. The first would be a Yes vote, and a decision by those who had campaigned for No to leave the Conservatives or stay – under a Prime Minister who would, in these circumstances, have won his third successive referendum. The second would be a No vote, and a corresponding decision by those who had campaigned for Yes. Those who opted to stay would be serving under new – and unknown – leadership. Messy? Yes. Risky? Sure: we see the future of this negotiation and Bill and campaign and vote “through a glass darkly”.
But such a Grand Bargain would be both politic and honourable. That’s not a basis for proceeding with a majority of 12 and the best part of five years ahead. Anyone got a better idea?