By Paul Goodman
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I read on Monday that photographs of Greek generals were being fly-posted on the streets of Athens by panic-stricken voters. There are no reports yet of pictures of David Davis being sellotaped to the walls of the Members Tea Room by disgruntled Conservative MPs (not yet, anyway).
But for the Tory Party no less than Greek voters, the Euro-crisis simply isn't going away. There was a peculiar atmosphere in Westminster among Conservative MPs yesterday – rather like the aftermath of a dire family row which everyone wants to halt, but no-one can find a means of stopping.
Let's try to work out what will – and should – happen next.
A group of Conservative MPs, given the choice between the repatriation of powers and the EU status quo, would choose the status quo. Robert Walter spoke for them during last week's debate. Their number is small.
Another group, given the choice between that repatriation and withdrawal, would withdraw. Their number is larger. By how much? Tory MPs learned long ago not to respond to surveys, and as far as I know no-one has tried to conduct one. My rough estimate is between 20 and 50.
That leaves everyone else – over 250 Conservative MPs, at the very least. This leads to the next question: how much power do they want repatriated? Again, this isn't clear. But it will be clearer by the time of the Christmas recess, for two main reasons.
- Foreign Office inertia. Both MPs who want to withdraw from the EU and those who wish to see powers repatriated unite in blaming the foreign office generally and William Hague specifically for the Government's unpreparedness. They believe that the department has done little work on repatriating powers since the election (officials will have been able to argue that the idea wasn't in the Coalition Agreement) and say that the Foreign Secretary has consistently tried to postpone debate about EU policy, arguing that the moment is not yet ripe for it (a view confirmed by his ConservativeHome interview in August). They are especially unhappy about Sir Jon Cunliffe, our Permanent Representative to the EU, both because of his alleged commitment to the European project and, even more importantly, because of the lack of accountability of any holder of the post to Parliament. (Douglas Carswell wrote about the matter a few days ago.) There is no confidence that the new foreign office unit set up to probe the repatriation of powers will take the bull by the horns.
- Tory backbench commitment. Few Conservative euro-enthusiasts will follow Walter's admirable example and make the case in public that they believe in private: by following this course, they are re-enacting the strategic blunder of the wets of the 1980s, who refused to take monetarism seriously while it was winning the argument. The People's Pledge will continue to campaign for an In/Out referendum. That leaves crafting a policy on the repatriation of powers open to other takers. These include the controversy-hit 81 Group enterprise (see Tracey Crouch's letter on this site yesterday and Mark Pritchard's response) and the Fresh Start group whose spokesman is George Eustice. Tim has already reported that it is co-operating with such Labour MPs as Frank Field and Gisela Stuart, and I gather that a new All-Party Group on European Reform is to be launched next Thursday, led by Andrea Leadstrom on the Tory side on Thomas Doherty on the Labour one. We can expect to see detail on repatriation of powers proposals from these sources and elsewhere.
The Foreign Office is now set to take the same course, but will certainly do so will less enthusiasm and probably go less far. And in the meantime, the Euro-crisis will lurch on, with a Greek referendum to take place soon and new Treaty negotiations to begin as next May. All this raises the question: how far will you go?
- David Cameron: How far will you go in pushing the repatriation of powers as far as your backbenchers would like, and can you really deny a referendum indefinitely?
- Nick Clegg: How far will you go in trying to stop this push?
- Liberal Democrat backbenchers: How far will you go in trying to put the brakes on it – perhaps to put pressure on your leader from the party's left? What about the views of your constituents – perhaps especially in the south-west, where Euro-scepticism has a strong voter presence?
- Conservative backbenchers: How far will you go with repatriation? Do you want a free trade deal like Norway's or Switzerland's – withdrawal, in effect? Would you settle for one power to come back from Brussels, regarding such a symbolic victory as a triumph in itself and a precedent for the future? If you want something in between, what is it – and how big? Is it fishing? Is it employment provisions – effectively reinstating the social chapter opt-out that John Major gained at Maastricht? Is it border control? Is at all these together?
Above all, if the Government for a package which is less large than you like, what will you do then? Will you settle for it? Or will you reject it – and, if so, what follows? Would you really be willing to bring the Government to a halt, or risk your seats in an election? How important do you believe the issue is to your voters – and have you read the magisterial analysis of Anthony Wells on the matter? Either way, shouldn't you be trying to work out how far you're prepared to go?
These are all big questions and deserve some answers. This is not a comment from which the author is excluded. I will write about how far I'd go tomorrow.