David Cameron came to his plan for a 2017 In-Out EU referendum late, and is coming to proposals for renegotiation even later. The most likely consequence of a continued delay is a spectacular fissure during the run-up to the 2015 election – as Conservatives MPs demand a sweeping repatriation of powers package from the leadership and duly fail to get one. The precedent of the split over the single currency during the 1997 campaign is too obvious to stress.
But nature abhors a vacuum, and into it this morning steps Bernard Jenkin and almost 100 other Tory MPs, who want “to change the law to give the Commons authority to block new EU legislation and repeal existing measures that threaten Britain’s “national interests” – the broad-brush repatriation to which I refer above. Indeed, for Parliament to act in such a way would be for Britain in effect to leave the EU. And the Prime Minister won’t be having any of that.
The best course that he could take would be to set out his own reform or repatriation proposals, which though growing (see “free movement”) are more modest, and stress that Conservatives who want to leave the EU will have their opportunity if he wins a majority – so all Tories, whatever their views on Europe, should campaign together for this. That he has failed to do so to date leaves him with a new problem to negotiate as May’s European elections draw nearer.
This is that to detonate the mother of all Euro-rows (even by the Conservatives’ standards) during the run-up to the European elections would be abominable timing – though nothing that Downing Street says before then will make much difference to the result, which as ever will be a national festival of voter revolt against Brussels in which UKIP does very well. None the less, Cameron would do well put some flesh on the Party’s Euro-policies before May.
This is because although nothing that he might propose on protecting the City, reducing welfare entitlements, curbing free movement, repatriating social and employment powers and so on will make much difference this year, voters may give such a programme a better reception in 2015, during an election that matters much more to them – especially if Number 10 and CCHQ repeat, repeat and repeat it during the months between.
If the Prime Minister feels inclined to go a bit further, he could look at the proposals being formulated by Fresh Start (to whose conference George Osborne is speaking this week). If anything at all could make an impact before May, it would be a commitment to leave the ECHR in the event of a majority Tory Government next time. The implication of Chris Grayling’s piece in today’s Sunday Telegraph is that this should happen – and if he means it, Cameron should free him to say so.