By Paul Goodman
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I tried yesterday morning not to get lost in the forest of EU pre-summit news – David Cameron's Times article, his avoidance of mention of repatriation of powers, Ken Clarke's dismissal of any attempt to regain them – but rather to stand back from the scene, and try to see the wood for the trees. Now the summit is on us and there is more news to consider: Owen Paterson's Spectator interview suggesting a referendum, Boris Johnson's intervention to the same effect, today's letter to the Daily Telegraph from 30 Conservative MPs, and so on. But it is still best to follow the same course as yesterday, and consider how the summit is likely to end.
Euro-summits don't break up without a deal being exultantly announced (even if it turns out on inspection to be guaranteed only by the Arthur Daley trademark). There are two ways in which one could be proclaimed this time round: an agreement among either the 27 or the 17. One among the latter would formally produce a two-tier EU, and thus throw Britain's membership into further doubt: if we will play even less of a role in decision-making, the argument would run, why should we stay at all? One among the former would produce one certain result. A treaty which Cameron signs would mean a bill in Parliament. And such a bill would be amendable. Welcome to Maastricht Revisited.
There have been treaty-related bills since Maastricht, of course – Amsterdam, Nice, Lisbon – but all of them have been recommended by Labour Governments: in each case, the Conservative Opposition did what oppositions are named to do – oppose them. But now once again a Tory Prime Minister is faced with the prospect of an EU treaty-related bill. This hasn't happened since the Maastricht bill in the early 1990s. In those days, Clarke was a Cabinet member and Bill Cash was tabling a mass of amendments. The best part of twenty groundhog years later, history stands ready to repeat itself.
Except it never does – at least not exactly. John Major led a Conservative Government. David Cameron leads a Coalition one. In the early 1990s, Euro-scepticism was a relatively new cause for many Tory MPs (some of the leading Maastricht rebels, such as Cash himself, had voted for the earlier Single European Act). Today, that belief has had the best part of two decades to be absorbed in the Conservative Party's bloodstream (some of the senior Ministers of the day, such as David Davis, who writes in this site's comment section this morning, are unlikely to let a bill which doesn't seal some return of powers pass without amendment and debate).
Major went to Maastricht without having faced a big backbench rebellion on Europe. Cameron has already faced the biggest one on record – the revolt of the 81, as recently as this October. Roughly half the party's backbenchers didn't follow their leader into the lobby. The division was on whether or not there should be a referendum. If there is a bill, there is bound to be an amendment to the same end. What will Conservative MPs say in such an event to their constituents and activists? After all, there was no deal to vote on eight weeks or so ago. But there may well be in far less than eight weeks time.
It isn't hard to see what the Prime Minister would say to dissenters in the eventuality of such a bill. Do you really want to vote down a deal that has protected the City? (If there is a deal among the 27, he will maintain that this end has been achieved.) Do you really want to weaken the Government and strengthen Ed Miliband? Do you really want an election that could put him in Downing Street, and return the party to the wilderness in which it languished for 13 long years? At the time of Maastricht, the heels of most Tory MPs clicked smartly to attention when similar appeals were made.
But when the Maastricht Treaty was signed there was no Euro and no Eurozone and no Euro-crisis (though there was, of course, the exchange rate mechanism). In the years that have passed since euro-enthusiasm has almost vanished from the Conservative Party: the Justice Secretary looks as an old if distinguished stagecoach must have looked at the time of the triumph of railway. Constituents are more turbulent. Associations are less deferential. MPs are more independent. The whips have less patronage. David Cameron is a more able politician than John Major. But unlike his predecessor, he has not won an election outright. This is the stage as it is set.