The Daily Telegraph reports this morning that David Cameron told Conservative MPs at yesterday afternoon’s end-of-term meeting of the 1922 Committee that the Parliament Act will be used to force through James Wharton’s referendum bill.  Though the bill doesn’t guarantee a poll in 2017, it is a useful means of helping to build pressure for one, and the Prime Minister should certainly strive to ensure that the view of the Commons on the Bill prevails.  Obviously, it’s important that his message to the ’22 is more than a tactical gambit, and it’s necessary in this context to read Mats Persson of Open Europe in today’s Times (£).  This will of course be impossible for those outside the Times paywall, but the sum of the article is in the headline: “Cameron has no plan for EU reform”.

Persson’s message is that although the Prime Minister “has achieved an EU budget cut and financial services safeguards”, the ideas in his major Europe speech last January haven’t been followed up, different Government departments pull in different directions on key issues (such as border control) and “there’s a failure to understand EU partners’ interests”.  In other words, Downing Street has no strategic programme to push for renegotiation and reform or, as an Open Europe report puts it, “No 10 still too often treats Europe like any other political issue that has to be “managed” – exactly the wrong way to go about it”.  Persson is not reflexively hostile to the Government, and his account is grimly credible.

The explanation isn’t the lack of focus and last-minuteism that Ministers and backbenchers alike unanimously complain about – almost without exception, in my experience.  (The eleventh-hour rushing through of regulations to restrict out-of-work benefits for citizens of other EU countries, as January 1 approaches, is a topical example in this context.)  Rather, it is a terror at the top of the Government of opening up the question of what and how much any renegotiation will aim to achieve.  This isn’t simply because the two parts of the Coalition don’t agree about it.  Cameron and George Osborne worry that setting out a repatriation of power plan will open up not so much a can as a lorry-load of worms.

In such an event, Downing Street fears that backbenchers will demand more – to the point at which their wish-list will be so extensive as to be tantamount to quitting the EU altogether.  In so far as any strategic plan is discernible at all, it seems to be to push the whole business off to nearer the election, in the hope that discipline and unity will assert themselves as polling day draws nearer.  Number 10’s anxieties are not unreasonable, but the cure of waiting until much nearer the election campaign is worse than the disease of not doing so.  John Major tried to put off a decision in principle about the single currency before 1997.  The consequence was a revolt from MPs, including Ministers, during the campaign itself.

The Prime Minister doubtless appreciates that he doesn’t have the option of silence during the run-up to next spring’s Euro-elections.  But given its party management anxieties, Downing Street is bound to try to hedge.  But would a policy of confirming what everyone knows anyway really be worse – in other words, acknowledging that the party leadership’s renegotiation aims are limited, and that when push comes to shove it wants Britain to remain in the EU?  After all, those who want to go further and faster will have the option of voting No in a 2017 referendum in the event of a Tory Government after the 2015 election.

The timing of the announcement of that poll helps to make the point: party management would have been easier if Number 10 had conceded it earlier.  The open recognition of differences within the Conservative family about staying and leaving has its risks.  But the alternative of papering over the cracks hasn’t worked.  Agreeing to differ would free all concerned, first, to push for victory at the next election without too many noises off and, second, to push for that referendum in the event of a Conservative-led coalition post-2015.  Cameron wants the political conversation to stick to the issues that interest voters more than EU reform: the economy, welfare, immigration.  But, paradoxically, not setting out a repatriation of powers plan is making this harder, not easier. And, as the Romanian and Bulgarian imbroglio proves, domestic and EU issues are not always separable.

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