Janan Ganesh, the Financial Times columnist, wrote earlier this week that the three objectives of the speech in which David Cameron promised an In/Out referendum were: “to pacify Tory MPs, sap the momentum of the fringe UK Independence party and put the troublesome subject of Europe to sleep until the general election in 2015. On all scores -” he added – “it failed”.
A Times Editorial (£), no less, declared that the actions of the MP signatories to the letter that recommended a Parliamentary red card for EU laws “undermines their entire party”.
James Kirkup, the Daily Telegraph’s Political Editor, used the same word as Ganesh. He wrote that “Mr Cameron’s policy of deferral has failed, because his party will no longer give him the time he asks for on Europe”. Peter Oborne, the paper’s Chief Political Columnist, writes today that “Tory MPs have reopened the party’s civil war on Europe”.
This is thus a timely moment to break the news that these distinguished gentlemen and our most venerable newspaper are dead wrong. There is no civil war. The Prime Minister’s referendum gambit has not failed. Instead, it is the letter championed by Bernard Jenkin* that has done so – according, at least, to Downing Street. Here is its view.
- The Euro-sceptic MPs who were elected in 2010 have a different approach to EU policy than those from earlier generations – and consist, after all, of almost half the Parliamentary Party. None of them are veterans of the Maastricht wars of the 1990s, and they are less inclined to sign troublesome letters and leak them to the press.
- It thus claims that the Jenkin letter did not represent the views of the Fresh Start Group, which is well established among the 2010 intake, and which held a big conference yesterday with Open Europe. Downing Street is too polite to describe Jenkin and some of the older generation of Euro-sceptics as has-beens, but that in my view is what it thinks.
- The Jenkin letter has, in its own view, “backfired”. Andrew Tyrie has said that he didn’t sign it after all, and that nor did six other Tory MPs who were registered as having done so. In particular, it argues that Tory MPs in marginal seats tend to see the letter as a ploy to rock the boat, and are displeased with it – as are lots of other MPs who are focused on winning the next election.
- The War of Jenkin’s Ear, sorry Letter, confirms that it would be a mistake to set out a detailed policy for renegotiation (Downing Street says). This is because a minority of Conservative MPs would immediately spell out ways in which their own ideas differ and, hey presto, the Tory Party would once again “be banging on about Europe”.
- This would distract attention from the part of the EU policy that matters most. “How many people out there,” I was asked, “know that we’re promising a referendum?” Above all, the EU policy should be the referendum, the referendum, the referendum. And, more importantly, staying focused on the economy – Cameron’s message to Conservative MPs earlier this week.
- Furthermore, says Downing Street, is has got a renegotiation policy. The Prime Minister has said in the Financial Times that he wants to curb freedom of movement. George Osborne said yesterday that the non-Euro states must retain their say and influence. Today, Cameron is insisting that the City of London is protected. Etc.
And there you have it. Me? I think north of 90 signatures on a letter is a lot of signatures; that disagreement about the Single Currency helped to sink the Tory campaign in 1997, and that the later Downing Street spells out more of its reform/renegotiation plan, the bigger and louder the dissenting explosion from Conservative MPs is likely to be. All in all, I think the distinguished gentlemen and the Times are right.
But hell, what do I know?
* P.S: Don’t take the brouhaha about Downing Street not having received the letter too seriously. This is clearly not much more or less than a device to avoid FOI.