There is a gap between the vision of those who wish to leave the EU and David Cameron’s ideal of how it should be after reform. The former want a free trade zone stretching from end to end of our common continent – and nothing much else, thank you very much: no law that reigns supreme above our own, and neither Euro-MPs to make it, hand in hand with the Commission, nor a European Court to interpret it. The latter wants no British participation in the Euro, Eurozone bail-outs or a European army, plus lower EU spending, protection for the City of London and the integrity of the Single Market, and an end to our commitment to “ever-closer union”. All this was set out in the Conservative Manifesto on which the Prime Minister won an unexpected victory exactly a month ago today.
These two are not the same thing. “No to a constant flow of powers to Brussels,” that manifesto declares. But those who support Brexit not only want to see no more power travel to Brussels at all, but want it to return. “No to unnecessary interference,” it continues. But those who wish to leave the EU desire no interference whatsoever – that’s to say, interference backed up by a political authority that holds itself to be greater than Parliament’s.
All this creates a problem for Conservative MPs who want Britain out. They have little faith in the Government’s proposed renegotiation: how could they, when its end is different from theirs? But they hardly like to say so. After all, Cameron has just pulled off an election win, governs with a slender majority, and the only gainer from Tory discord would be Labour. They may want Britain to leave the EU, but they also want to win the next election. This dilemma is not an ignoble one.
Steve Baker’s piece in today’s Sunday Telegraph, launching a new initiative called Conservatives for Britain, offers an insight into it. Quoting Business for Britain, he lists ten areas in which the Prime Minister has demanded reform. The final one is “the right for Britain to veto EU laws”. But this is not quite what the manifesto says. Its form of words is: “We want national parliaments to be able to work together to block unwanted European legislation”. It raises no prospect of ours being able to block them on its own.
Baker goes on to say that “Conservatives for Britain will be exploring the extent to which those goals have been met in the renegotiation package and whether they are sufficient to recommend EU membership to the British people” [my italics]. His “they” refers not to the package but to Cameron’s goals themselves. He is suggesting that they may not be sufficient, and his own views on the EU are on the record: it is “not the right route”, he writes elsewhere, to his ideals of peace and free trade.
We agree. ConservativeHome is for Brexit – and we thus offer Conservatives for Britain a warm welcome. Baker’s piece sets out the rationale for leaving plainly and eloquently. “We are ever more accustomed to a globe without borders and boundaries,” he writes, urging us not to “miss out on the growth of Asia and South America and the overdue emergence of Africa. Who doubts that much of our material success is dependent on trade with the great manufacturers of China? Why should British firms and families accept European barriers to global trade?”
Baker himself is to be co-Chairman of this new group, together with David Campbell-Bannerman. There could be no better appointment at the Parliamentary end than my successor in Wycombe. He is bright, clear-thinking, has real integrity and is very popular with his colleagues – as his re-election last week to the 1922 Committee’s Executive proves. He is at the same time both senior and part of the younger generation of Commons Eurosceptics. Baker represents a fresh start.
The group’s membership stretches from older generations, including John Redwood and Owen Paterson, to newcomers, such as James Cleverly, Tom Pursglove, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, and Craig Mackinlay. A crucial question over the coming months will be: how far does support for it stretch up the Ministerial ranks? We have named four Cabinet Ministers for Brexit: Iain Duncan-Smith, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling and Philip Hammond. The latter’s name must now be withdrawn from the list. The Times has added Oliver Letwin’s.
John Whittingdale would be an unlikely campaigner for Yes. Theresa Villiers has always been a committed Euro-sceptic. Then there are Michael Fallon and Liz Truss, right-wingers both. But the biggest question mark of all hangs over Sajid Javid, who has been streaking up this site’s future leader poll in recent months. If the British people vote to leave the EU,the EU, he has said “that isn’t something that I’d be afraid of, I’d embrace the opportunities that would create.”
Whatever happens, the success of Conservatives for Britain and David Cameron’s Government are bound up together. It is not in the interest of those Tory MPs who want Brexit to suggest a confidence in the Government’s renegotiation that they don’t have. Neither is it in the interest of the Government to risk revolt and force resignations by attempting to stifle free expression. And it is best for everyone if both the Yes and No campaigns get going as soon as possible – so that the issues can be fully considered and discussed by the British people. As we have suggested, that means a Grand Bargain on Europe. Ministers should be free to speak and vote for No during the referendum campaign. And the Prime Minister should be free to get on with the renegotiation he wants to have – not the further-reaching one that some other Conservatives prefer.