The Spectator was one of the earliest champions of Euro-scepticism, at least on the centre-right, having come out against the Single European Act in 1986 – and it has been a committed opponent of the EU project ever since. It is thus breaking with its recent history by taking a stern view of Conservative Euro-rebels in this week’s edition, as this afternoon’s vote looms on two critical amendments to the Immigration Bill. Its editorial criticises “a band of Tories who are working to sabotage the government in pursuit of their own fantasies. At their heart” (it continues) “is a determined group that loathes Cameron and wants him gone — and some of whom have convinced themselves that having Miliband in office is a price worth paying”.
Here are some more quotes to give you the flavour: “childish self-indulgence…pointless rebellion…the quality of many rebel proposals is disgraceful. The alternative Queen’s speech put forward by Peter Bone, including ideas such as a Thatcher memorial day, would have embarrassed a university Conservative association.” Downing Street will believe that the Spectator has caught the mood of most Tory backbenchers. As I wrote recently, it thinks that it won the war of Jenkin’s letter (which the editorial describes as “pointlessly destructive”). David Cameron and George Osborne are convinced that the mighty 2010 intake, which now makes up almost half of all Tory MPs, has had enough of Euro-rebellions that threaten the Party’s electoral prospects – especially if they sit for marginal seats.
Number 10 sees this clash as Age Wars. Not to put too fine a point on it, some in the leadership’s circle view Jenkin, Bill Cash, David Davis, John Redwood and others as doddery Euro-dinosaurs, in thrall to the past and out of touch with their colleagues. It certainly saw off one of the main Euro-proposals from those older MPs – the mandate referendum – without too much trouble at the time of the Queen’s speech. Cameron gave way to John Baron’s amendment pressing an early date for an In/Out referendum, and went on to champion the Wharton Bill, but the mandate referendum scheme has gone the way of the dodo.
We will see whether this afternoon’s votes encourages the leadership in that view. As usual, much will depend on the Speaker’s selection of amendments and how they are grouped. Today’s Daily Telegraph suggests that Dominic Raab’s amendment to make it much harder for foreign criminals to use human rights laws to avoid deportation may gain 100 or so votes if called. Theresa May, who doesn’t have the warmest relationship with Raab, insists the amendment is unnecessary, and has diversionary gambits up her sleeve: for example, the Home Office is re-floating its scheme to make some of those criminals stateless. The Liberal Democrats agree with May. Downing Street is more muted.
The Whips are working to ensure that the Raab amendment isn’t voted on at all. (Friends of the Esher and Walton MP are fighting back: today’s Mail has a leaked Home Office report claiming that 4000 foreign criminals have been freed to walk the streets.) I hope that it is reached and passes. This brings us to the other main business of the afternoon – Nigel Mills’s amendment to re-impose controls on the entry to Britain of Romanians and Bulgarians. The Spectator has no view on the Raab plan, but is opposed to the Mills proposal, arguing correctly that “his particular battle was lost several years ago and to re-enact it now is worse than futile”.
However, it is not only Tory backbenchers who face a choice, and nor is it one confined to this afternoon’s proceedings. It will take two to tango if peace is to break out between Number 10 and Euro-sceptic backbenchers, and dismissing its critics as ageing has-beens in safe seats will do nothing to further it. The claim is also untrue. Redwood has produced evidence on his blog that, contrary to suggestion, many of this Parliament’s Euro-rebels sit in marginals and were elected in 2010. To put it plainly, the Conservative leadership has a history of handling Tory backbenchers badly, stretching from the introduction of the A-list through the attempt to abolish the ’22 to last summer’s Syria vote.
One version of the future is as follows. The less restrained spirits around Downing Street continue to goad the rebels who, meanwhile, carry on issuing ultimatums. A more happy one sees a bargain. Cameron sets out his plans for renegotiation, which will go less far than many Euro-sceptics want. Both then agree to disagree – working together for the Conservative Government that will deliver an In/Out referendum after 2015. In such an event, Cameron will surely campaign for Britain to stay in, and the rebels will be free to do the opposite. If such a bargain isn’t struck, the most likely consequence will be no referendum at all – and Ed Miliband leading the most left-wing government since the 1970s. Number 10 and the rebels share a responsibility for preventing this disaster for Britain. Will they rise to it?