By Paul Goodman
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Yesterday, the Prime Minister looked set to back George Eustice's amendment.
Yesterday morning, it looked as though David Cameron was moving to quell the gathering backbench revolt over Monday's EU referendum vote. Today, it seems that he has decided that the Government has no alternative but to let it rage and tough it out. The means by which Downing Street was expected to calm the backbenches was an amendment tabled by George Eustice. It calls for the Government to publish a White Paper on the EU within the next two years, set out in it which powers should be repatriated from Brussels, then seek to renegotiate them and finally hold a referendum on the outcome.
The Speaker may not select this amendment for debate at all. If he does, however, it is likely to separate those MPs who want a plebiscite on renegotiated EU terms from those who back an in-out poll – a clever counter-move to David Nuttall's motion, which unites them by proposing both. Eustice and Chris Heaton-Harris are among the leaders of the new Euro-sceptic Commons group of Conservative MPs which attracted over 100 MPs to its first meeting. In the competitive world of Tory Euro-scepticism, they are viewed by some of those who back an in-out referendum as whips' narks: it was an amendment from Heaton-Harris, remember, which watered down Mark Reckless's motion earlier this year opposing bail-outs.
Today, he looks set to reject it and tough the vote out.
The stage therefore seemed set for the following drama: the debate would be rushed forward to Monday, in order both to thwart voter pressure on MPs to vote against the Government and to allow Cameron and William Hague to be in the Commons and make their case; the Prime Minister would promise to back the contents of the Eustice amendment, and this would be enough to isolate the MPs backing an in-out poll. As I write, however, this outcome may be off. The Guardian reports that although the Prime Minister agrees with the Eustice amendment, he won't support it – because it is unacceptable to the Liberal Democrats.
Did Downing Street or the whips office encourage the amendment, only to realise later that Nick Clegg won't accept it? This isn't clear, though Cameron's approach to the Europe issue certainly is. He is best described not as a Euro-enthusiast or a Euro-sceptic (though he certainly shares none of the zeal for the EU project of the older generation of Euro-enthusiasts such as Ken Clarke) but as Euro-fearful. For him, the issue is primarily about party management: disagreements over Europe have wracked the party since Margaret Thatcher's Bruges speech, and he associates debate about the EU with the strife over Maastricht that wracked John Major's Government and with the 13 years of Opposition that followed.
Don't rule out a Downing Street retreat over the weekend
This helps to explain why he was unwilling to allow a free vote on Nuttall's motion. He evidently believed that such a course would send a signal to Tory backbenchers that they were free to vote for it – and that perhaps up to a third of the Parliamentary Party would do so, indicating to the world that he is less than fully in charge. Hence the decision to rush the debate forward, back away from Eustice's motion and send in the whips. However, he may have misread his man. The Guardian claims that Eustice may now back the original motion, and that Heaton-Harris is curtailing a trip to Jordan to vote against the Government.
It is impossible to know today what will happen in the Commons on Monday, and it may be that with 64 Conservative MPs now backing the motion Downing Street backs off over the weekend, and tries to hammer out a compromise. But if the short-term picture is cloudy, the longer-term one is becoming clear, and the imbroglio over next week's vote is helping to reveal it – namely, that although there is respect for Cameron on the backbenches there is strikingly little affection: to the ten reasons I previously listed for this, new ones can be added: the impact of the reshuffle on the right of the party, of the promotion of Tory women MPs on some male ones, and of the boundary review on some MPs who would otherwise line up with the loyalists.
The Prime Minister will win his battle on Europe on Monday. But he is losing the long war against the party's Euro-sceptics.
However, it is worth wrenching one's gaze away from the Westminster village to look at the bigger picture. The Prime Minister will doubtless win the battle on Monday, backed by Ed Miliband (who seems to have concluded that opposing the motion is the most economical means of widening Tory divisions) and buoyed by the votes of the Liberal Democrats (whose hypocrisy is astonishing: the party's manifesto backed an in-out referendum, declaring that "we are the only party confident enough to put the pro-European case to the British people on the big issue facing us – and let the people decide").
None the less, he is losing the long war with the Conservative Euro-sceptics. The 2005 manifesto proposed two repatriations of powers. The 2010 manifesto proposed three. The election that followed its publication saw a further hardening of opinion about Europe in a Parliamentary Party of which almost half the members are new. Carswell, Cash, Eustice and others disagree on many things, but they agree on one: that Britain's status quo on the EU simply won't do. Hesitantly, slowly and unwillingly, Cameron is being inched down the road towards a more radical manifesto on the EU in 2015, complete with more repatriation proposals, which would bring a referendum in their wake – providing, that is, that the crisis in the Eurozone doesn't rush these on him before.