As Downing Street strives to dissuade any more Tory MPs from following Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless into the arms of Nigel Farage, two issues which have assumed particular importance are the European Arrest Warrant and the Recall Bill.
On the first of these, rumours are circulating that a U-turn is imminent, and that the Government will not after all opt back into the warrant. How delighted a large number of Tory backbenchers would be if this turned out to be the case. But my impression is that there has in fact been no change in the Government’s position.
It is conceivable that the Whips, while researching the state of backbench opinion, have inadvertently given an impression of movement. Many people (myself included) would like so much to see the European Arrest Warrant dropped that there is a temptation to regard inquiries which are in fact simply designed to elicit information as indicative of a change of heart in Downing Street.
The safest rule is to rely on what is said in public, and not to jump to conclusions from private questions whose purpose is just to establish the likely size of any potential rebellion. And here there is at least better news for those Conservatives who attach importance to the strengthening of the Recall Bill. On Wednesday, Mr Carswell used his first question as a UKIP MP to the Prime Minister to ask:
“My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) will be pressing amendments to ensure that the Recall of MPs Bill makes MPs meaningfully accountable to their constituents – real recall. Will the Prime Minister now support these amendments in order to honour the promises on which he sought office in 2010?”
To this, Mr Cameron gave what sounded like a carefully considered reply:
“We have made it very clear that we wanted to see a Recall Bill come in front of Parliament and be voted on, and I am delighted that we are keeping that promise; the Second Reading of the Recall Bill will be happening very soon in this House. I will look very carefully at all amendments that come forward because, frankly, in getting this Bill together we have come up with the minimum acceptable for recall, but I think there are a lot of very good arguments to be had about how we can go further, and I look forward to having them in the House of Commons.”
That sounds like a plain hint of movement, delivered in the plain light of day, without any attempt to score some kind of cheap point off Mr Carswell. For the Prime Minister knows how deeply some of his own backbenchers are attached to this measure.
Some may think it a pity that inquiries intended to assess the state of backbench opinion which could once have been made in confidence by the Whips are nowadays liable to be reported pretty much immediately as evidence of a shift in the Government’s position. But as Paul Goodman has observed on this site, times have changed, and Michael Gove has emerged as a Chief Whip with an unprecedented willingness to comment on subjects which in earlier times would have been draped in an impenetrable and seemly silence.
Only yesterday, we were presented with a shocking example of the new Chief Whip’s way of operating. On being challenged in a sunlit garden in Northamptonshire to name his favourite scene in Game of Thrones, Michael Gove without hesitation supplied a trenchant (though in my case incomprehensible) reply. What strange times we live in, when the Chief Whip conducts himself with such openness.
Between now and next May, much will depend on Mr Gove’s ability to manage the parliamentary party. One trusts that backbenchers will supply him with all the information he needs in order to convey to Downing Street the full strength of feeling against the European Arrest Warrant, and in favour of a powerful Recall Bill.