By Paul Goodman
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Roughly half of Conservative backbenchers failed to back David Cameron yesterday evening – the largest revolt against a Tory Prime Minister on Europe since Britain joined the EEC. Trust between him and his party is in danger of breaking down.
To describe the problems he needs to correct, if he is to begin to repair that trust, would require a much longer article than this one. So I will stick to just one of them – that which drove yesterday evening's revolt: namely, the Prime Minister's view on Europe.
Most Conservative MPs don't want Britain to withdraw from the EU. They do, however, want powers repatriated from Brussels. And when the Prime Minister says that he agrees, I'm afraid that, rightly or wrongly, many of them simply don't believe him.
So if he is to make a start in convincing them that they've misjudged him, the minimum he should do now is as follows:
- Co-task Oliver Letwin with undertaking an immediate review of party policy on the EU – for which there is a new justification: namely, the prospect of a EU conference in the near future to discuss treaty change. (There will also be budget negotiations soon.)
- Announce that Letwin, Graham Brady and the 1922 Committee Executive will have co-responsibility for the review, together with its relevant backbench committees – such as the home affairs committee chaired by Eleanor Laing, the foreign affairs committee chaired by Edward Leigh, and the economic affairs committee chaired by John Redwood.
- Require the review to consider whether EU powers should be repatriated to the UK – and task it, in the event of the review concluding that powers should indeed be repatriated, with making recommendations about whether or not a referendum should be held after negotiations with other EU countries on a repatriation of powers package.
- Ensure that the Conservative Policy Forum will also have such a role.
- Invite party members to submit their views online.
- Consult individual MPs and interested groups of Parliamentarians – such as, for example, the Fresh Start group with an interest in EU policy of which George Eustice is the spokesman, the launch of which over 100 MPs attended.
- Commit to publishing the review's conclusions by the end of next month.
The Prime Minister should commit himself first to considering the results of the review with the party's Liberal Democrat partners in the Coalition, and then agreeing an updated Government policy position on the EU.
This seven-point plan would mean sharing some power with Conservative MPs and the party more widely. It wouldn't breach the Coalition Agreement, let alone bring down the Government – though it certainly would require some tough negotiating with Nick Clegg and his party, and soon.
This programme treats the EU as unique, urgent and different from other policy issues. But in the wake of yesterday evening's vote, and with Treaty changes perhaps coming nearer, the Prime Minister has – as one of his predecessors used to put it – no alternative.