By Paul Goodman
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Last year, the Prime Minister flew to Brussels amidst rumour of a leadership challenge if he didn't achieve at least a token repatriation of power.
Today, he faced the Commons not only with no such repatriation realised but with his veto – so rapturously greeted at the time by Conservative MPs – arguably valueless, since it's now clear that he won't challenge the principle of the EU institutions being used to enforce the F.U agreement.
Yet there was no mass revolt from his backbenches, and no revival to date of the leadership challenge rumours. What explains this change in the Tory atmosphere? I hope to explore the question in detail soon, but will for the moment rest with an answer I've cited before.
MPs like votes they can get their teeth into, so to speak – votes on amendments to measures like the Maastricht Bill, for example, or the motion last year on an EU referendum. Since David Cameron signed no treaty last year there will consequently be no bill – and therefore no vote.
This showed during this afternoon's Commons statement on last week's Euro-meeting by Cameron, which lasted for the best part of 90 minutes. He said that "if necessary we will take action including legal action if our interests are threatened".
As the Prime Minister will doubtless have hoped, this provoked a rather circular series of questions and answer about the circumstances under which such action would be taken. Such theoretical discussion is along way from the live drama of a Commons vote, with all its consequences.
I would divide the questions into the following categories. I apologise to the MPs concerned that my way of doing so is rather compressed and impressionistic, but I think it conveys why Cameron, this afternoon, got off the hook on the veto.
- The openly critical. Into this category I would put Mark Reckless (Can the Prime Minister explain what it is that he vetoed?*), Philip Hollobone (What part of the veto is giving Merkel hope that the F.U will be folded into the E.U?), Andrew Percy (Won't we be suckered into another EU treaty?), and David Nuttall (Won't the Commission and Court be utilised?).
- The guardedly or not-so-guardedly suspicious. Here I would cite Bill Cash (Will this treaty ever be folded into the EU treaties?), Bernard Jenkin (Cameron right to worry about the institutions perhaps being hi-jacked), Andrea Leadsom (Can he reassure the House that he was acting in the national interest?), Edward Leigh (What would trigger legal action?), Anne Main (We could lose in the court), Julian Lewis (the EU needs different currencies), Julian Brazier (preparations for the Euro breaking up), Christopher Chope (let's find more common cause with our Czech friends), Chris Kelly (worries about the court) and Peter Bone (pro-Mrs Bone, anti-Liberal Democrat). Stephen Moseley asked a question similar in content to Andrew Percy's above but more watchfully and briefly.
- The soberly supportive. Into this group fell Richard Ottoway (stablilty of Europe), Jessica Lee (the protection of jobs), George Eustice (stop regulatary gold-plating), Penny Mordaunt (defence, with a particular eye to her Portsmouth constituency), Tony Baldry (European barriers to professional work), Steve Baker (need for a new Europe), Margot James (reduce regulation), Gavin Barwell (ditto), Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (trade), David Rutley (micro-business), Stephen Byles (regulation), Bob Blackman (business opportunities), Robert Halfon (petrol prices) and Alun Cairns (financial services),
- The foreign affairs-related. Here I would name Robert Buckland (trade with Japan), John Baron (Don't attack Iran), Ben Gummer (lovely sober question about British influence and policy on Iran, Syria and Burma), Jo Johnson (India, on which he's a specialist), Rehman Chishti (Syria), James Morris (Iran), Christopher Pincher (Africa), Andrew Selous (Iran),
- The anti-Labour. Namely, David T.C Davis, Andrew Bridgen and Nadhim Zahawi, who admittedly didn't attack Miliband at all, but laid instead into Sarkozy, which will have pleased the Prime Minister even more.
- The veto-sceptical. Into this somewhat specialist category on the Conservative side I would put Nicholas Soames (explicitly) and Neil Carmichael (implicitly).
But although Cameron is off the hook on the veto, at least for the moment, the signs this afternoon were that he's very much on it over any more taxpayers' money for the IMF – which would, of course, require a Commons vote.
Andrew Tyrie and Richard Shepherd referred to the IMF, but I was struck by the question from Sarah Newton, who made it clear that her constituents don't want any more money "going to Greece".
Newton is not at all a usual suspect but a good new backbench MP who will be keeping a careful eye out for her constituents' concerns. Rightly or wrongly, I read her question as a bit of a straw in the wind over any future IMF vote.
Miliband? He had a lot of fun and jokes: the veto was "not for life, just for Christmas", and: "It talks like a European Treaty, it walks like a European Treaty – it is a European Treaty".
The Liberal Democrats? Menzies was sad that "my support for [the Prime Minister] isn't shared on the government benches". Which means he wasn't. Simon Hughes said that the meeting last week was "more satisfactory than the one in December". Which means it wasn't.
* This was either an exceptionally stupid or exceptionally brilliant question. Stupid, if you think it offered Cameron the obvious answer – "a treaty". Brilliant, if you believe that it succintly exposed the central fact – that the veto has achieved nothing whatsoever.