By Paul Goodman
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From next year's Hansard:
"To sum up. This deal curbs the extravagance of the EU budget. It extends the single market. It protects the position of the City. And it sets an ineradicable precedent by repatriating power from the EU. The Common Fisheries Policy is ending, and are regaining control of our waters – a win for Britain. Control of the working time directive is comes home – a win for Britain. Mr Speaker, this whole deal is a win for Britain. I say to the House: fundamental reform is beginning. We cannot do it all at once, but we have made a start. There is more – much more – to come. I commend this settlement to the House."
In the aftermath of the Commons EU referendum revolt amidst the collapse of the Eurozone…
We are heading for the above as the final paragraph of David Cameron's post-treaty negotiation Commons statement next year – or at least towards words very like them. These may not present a full picture of the deal in question. For example, fisheries policy could be regionalised (and not returned to national governments). And we are unlikely to gain control of the whole of the working time directive.
But they represent the essence of the Prime Minister's gathering strategy on the EU – one which is gradually replacing the near-vacuum which followed the Europe referendum Commons revolt by 81 Conservative MPs. This saw roughly half the Tory backbenches refuse to support the Government in the lobbies – the biggest-ever blue revolt on Europe.
…There was a vaccum where the Government's EU policy should be
During its aftermath, Cameron made no effort to stage a rapprochement with the 1922 Committee's Executive (many of whose members he regards as incorrigible irreconcilables) over the repatriation of powers, or with the rebels more broadly. The R-word is central to any distinctive Tory position on the EU. After all, the manifesto on which the party leader campaigned pledged the party to try to return powers.
Its triple proposal on the matter referred to "the Charter of Fundamental Rights, on criminal justice, and on social and employment legislation". Those 81 Conservative MPs failed to back the Government for many reasons. Some were discontented over limited promotion prospects. Others were unhappy over "pay and rations". Others still were under pressure from constituents – or more often from activists – over supporting an EU referendum. Others yet simply believe that when it comes to the EU the people must decide.
Repatriation of powers is the central issue
But all of them – and, no less importantly, many of Ministers and backbenchers who voted unhappily but loyally with the Government – want powers returned. A significant proportion – perhaps between 20 and 50 – want Britain to leave the EU altogether. A smaller section of Tory MPs, represented during the debate by the lonely and honourable voice of Robert Walter, are broadly happy with the institutional status quo.
Neither of these groups are interested in filling the policy gap that opened up after the revolt of the 81. Both those who want to stay and leave in any circumstances unite in believing that attempts to repatriate power are doomed to fail. The energies of the latter are concentrated on the Better Off Out and (particularly) the Peoples Pledge campaigns. But as one Conservative EU expert pointed out to me of the rest: "Most of my colleagues want powers back. Ask them which ones, though, and answer comes there none."
Downing Street is beginning to fill the vacuum…
Downing Street is at last beginning to fill the vacuum. Before the EU Commons referendum vote, the Prime Minister told the Commons that the time for "fundamental reform" is coming. Last week, he referred in his speech at the Lord Mayor's Banquet to "an opportunity, in Britain's case, for powers to ebb back instead of flowing away". The Guardian reported a claimed outline deal between Cameron and Angela Markel over the Working Time Directive yesterday.
This should come as no surprise, since the Coalition Agreement says that the Government "will examine the balance of the EU's existing competences and will, in particular, work to limit the application of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom". But detailed work on the plan isn't necessarily taking place in the Foreign Office – which is keeping mum about any policy work it may be undertaking – but among a new group on the Conservative backbenches.
…As is Fresh Start…
When leading members of the Fresh Start Group raised its planned launch with the Whips earlier this year, they reportedly received a cool response. But the chill in the air has warmed recently – and the explanation lies not so much within the Foreign Office as in the Treasury. George Osborne, ever-alert to the currents that surge beneath the surface at Westminster, has been encouraging the group in its efforts.
Members of it have been quietly trooping in and out of the Treasury – particularly before the recent Commons vote on future EU budget increases, which saw the Government's motion pass without a division. Last week, a new All-Party European Reform Group was launched in the Commons. Its Conservative Co-Chairman is Andrea Leadsom, one of the three most prominent members of Fresh Start. (The other two being George Eustice and Chris Heaton Harris.)
…So is Fresh Start Cameron's EU think-tank?
Open Europe made a presentation to the new group about social and employment policy, a category into which the Working Time Directive happens to fall. The subject of the next planned presentation also happens to coincide with another of David Cameron's: the protection of the City of London. One senior member of the group has said that one of its main functions is "to educate the Conservative Party about the EU".
Suspicious supporters of withdrawal – or Euro-sceptics more broadly – may be wary of Fresh Start, seeing it as a part of a murky Government plot. This is unfair. Number Ten can't control the hundred or so MPs who turned up to the group's launch, the mass of whom are nobody's patsies. And Fresh Start is staking out territory beyond the seeming ambitions of Downing Street. One leading light of the group wants formal recognition in any treaty revision of a new reverse passarelle arrangement.
Coming from Cameron: a minimalist package, not a broad renegotiation
However, both may agree that a single symbolic power repatriation may do for the moment. The prospect of wider-ranging renegotiation demands from Cameron – let alone anything resembling a push for the kind free trade arrangement enjoyed by Norway or Switzerland – seems to be almost non-existent. Instead, there looks to be be a package based on single market furtherance, a curtailed EU budget, the protection of the City from a Tobin tax, the regionalisation of fishing – and a power repatriation precedent over working time.
This would enable Cameron to make the pitch sketched out at the beginning of his article in public, and to set out another more bluntly to wavering backbenchers in private. Do you really want to destabilise the Government? (The whips and the party machine will ask them bluntly.) Do you want to risk its stability and longevity? Do you really want an early election that could put Miliband in Downing Street – and lose your seat?
The older generation of renegotiation supporters won't go quietly…
The key question is whether the Tory party as a whole will now settle for such a limited package, at what is arguably a moment for major renegotation that will not come again quickly. The older generation of repatriation power champions is unlikely to go quietly. John Redwood's blog is eloquent on the subject; David Davis has recently set out his stall.
Previous Commons votes on the EU suggest a rebel hardcore of perhaps 40. A smaller number of these have lost patience with the Coalition altogether. A much larger proportion of Conservative MPs – the payroll aside – will rally round Downing Street, some enthusiastically, because they support and admire Cameron, others reluctantly, desiring above all to avoid an election.
…But what will the ordinary backbencher make of it all?
Somewhere in between these enthusiams and apprehensions can be found the ordinary Tory backbencher. Such a man (and it probably is a man) doesn't warm to the Prime Minister, but isn't hostile to him either. He feels the instinctive pull of party loyalty, but also that of his Euro-sceptic local Association – with re-selection looming into view. He wants the repatriation of powers as an end, but is vague about the means.
Unlike the Prime Minster, he has none of the self-confidence of Fortinbras. Nor is he the star of this fretful show: like Eliot's Prufrock, he is not Prince Hamlet, nor is meant to be. Over-worked, under-paid, IPSA-fearful, ambition-thwarted and constituent-beset, he holds the fate of the Government in his worried hands.
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