By Paul Goodman
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The EU wasn't a popular topic at the recent Conservative conference – at least with those managing the event. In a list of suggested topics for representatives to speak on, fashion was included but the E-word somehow overlooked. This may be a sign not only of how divisive Europe can be for the party – after all, the venomous legacy of Maastricht helped to keep it out of power for 13 years – but of how opinion both inside and outside it has changed.
The polls have shifted against EU membership. Ten Conservative MPs have joined Better Off Out, roughly a third would be prepared to see Britain quit and three Cabinet members are said to agree with them – including one integral to the Cameron project, Oliver Letwin. Steve Hilton, the Prime Minister's closest adviser, is reported to agree, so frustrated has he become with the obstacle that EU rules and regulations present to realising the Big Society. The rationalist Euro project – as much a project of ideology as fascism or communism – is collapsing beneath the weight of its own contradictions. William Hague's warnings are being proved right before our eyes.
It was during his period as leader that the balance of opinion in the Parliamentary Party swung decisively towards Euro-scepticism. Amsterdam, Nice, Lisbon – the Party opposed them all. Had the Czechs held out against ratifying the last, David Cameron would have had little option but to grant voters the referendum he promised in such a circumstance, had he gained a Commons majority. To the objection that he has failed to deliver on his Euro-sceptic leadership election pledges, one response is: look at the record. Cameron kept his promise to help implement an exit for Tory MEPs from the European People's Party. And he stood five years after that manifesto on the most Euro-sceptic one in the party's history, committing it to strive for three separate repatriations of powers.
Thin fare, you may say. But the transformation of MPs' and members' views is unmissable. Over a hundred new MPs met recently over Europe, and though they – and others – don't agree about everything, they are united on wanting powers returned. The next manifesto will thus surely propose a higher number of repatriated powers. And if a Conservative Government is returned after the next election, it will be impossible for Cameron to postpone negotiations indefinitely. They might be confined to a limited package of proposals; they could stretch as far as a Swiss-style free trade deal. After all, who knows where the EU will be by then?
But either way, bargaining would take place between Britain and other EU countries – as it will before 2015, certainly over a new budget, possibly over a new treaty. This takes us to prospects for a referendum. No Conservative Government will withdraw from the EU first and negotiate terms later: after all, it will want to settle that renegotiation package, that trade deal. To walk out first and seek terms later would be like consenting to a divorce without trying first to reach an agreement on who keeps the family home or cares for the children at weekends. This would be a topsy-turvy way of doing things. No sensible person – or Government – would take it.
A Euro-sceptic leitmotif is that in such negotiations other EU countries would have no option but to agree our terms, since a trade war is no more in their interest than ours. Let's grant this assumption for the moment, and imagine David Cameron returning from the continental mainland with whatever he'd agreed. A major constitutional package – such as that Swiss-style arrangement – would surely require a referendum: the wave of British post-1997 plebiscites, ranging in their topic from the Belfast Agreement to AV, robs the alternative (that's to say, simply putting a bill on the negotiated deal through Parliament) of legitimacy. In such a poll Euro-sceptics would presumably vote yes, not no – yes, that is, to any deal which repatriated a significant number of powers, let alone agreed a Swiss-type deal.
I appreciate that all this is unacceptably tortuous to those who have decided that Britain would be Better Off Out. "So" – they will respond – "you're saying that a Conservative Government may seek a renegotiation, that it may be a major one and that we then may get a say. This is all too uncertain. Give us a plain, simple In/Out referendum." If, for whatever reason, other EU countries did not agree terms, I would agree with them. I would then want an In/Out poll – and, alongside the Better Off Outers, I would vote to leave, on the ground that the short-term pain would be worth the medium-term gain. But pain – or at least warnings of it – there would undoubtedly be: solemn warnings from the CBI, claims that trade barriers would go up if we left, assertions that investment and exports and jobs would be at risk.
To argue in response that trade hostilities from other EU countries would be self-defeating, even illegal, may win an abstract argument. I am not convinced that it would persuade rattled voters. The opinion polls I referred to earlier are suggestive but not decisive: they are no more reliable a guide to what would happen in a referendum than those early polls showing a majority for AV turned out to be last May. The pro-EU lobby has not been above over-egging its case in the past – to put it mildly – and won't do so in the future either. In the event of an In/Out vote, it would almost certainly be joined by the three major parties. Those who claim in response that a great big grassroots anti-establishment campaign would stuff Cameron, Miliband and Clegg alike should again ponder the AV referendum. The Yes to AV campaign was conceived as a great big grassroots anti-establishment campaign. Remember what happened to it.
The People's Pledge and Better Off Out were busy at the conference – and are so now. I see both as a good thing. They put pressure on the Government that otherwise wouldn't be there, and help push Ministers towards the renegotiation I want. But the choice is simple. There is either the possibility of a renegotiation deal under a Conservative Government, subject to a referendum, which would supported by one of the three main parties and by a great deal of business. Or the less likely possibility of an In/Out referendum which would be opposed by all three of the main parties and quite a lot of business. I know which offers the better prospect of success. Oh, and finally: an In-Out referendum would cleave in two the party I've supported for over 30 years. This is not the decisive factor in my suspicion of one. But I hope that other party members will bear it in mind.