The last time the Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation was going well was the morning after its announcement. The terms were ambitious (so ambitious, indeed, that the EU is never going to agree to them – ending ever closer union would be to ditch the fundamental purpose of the Brussels project), the headlines warm and the referendum pledge underpinning the process was welcome, if overdue.
It went downhill from there. The review of competences carried out in various Whitehall departments, under the pro-EU eye of Foreign Office mandarins, was poorly conducted and failed to properly explore the issues. The specific aims of the renegotiation still haven’t been laid out. The talks haven’t properly begun, despite the deadline being only a couple of years away.
All that remains is that referendum pledge. Which is fine for Better Off Outers like me, but not exactly what those who want a successful renegotiation intended.
So the search is on for a person to put it all back on track and lead the renegotiation. As The Times reported a couple of days ago, Ed Llewellyn will manage the process after the election. Today’s Sunday Telegraph features speculation that Sir John Major may be called in to lead the talks – supposedly because he has championed Britain’s EU membership against hardline eurosceptics while also talking tough with the EU about the real prospect of Brexit.
It isn’t exactly an encouraging prospect. For all the lionisation of Major in recent years, it was his decision to sign Maastricht that first split the Conservative Party on this topic – and, incidentally, sparked the founding of UKIP in the first place. Even leaving aside the other ways in which our party still suffers the after-affects of those miserable years in the 1990s, his record on this issue alone should sound warning bells.
After all, what are the aims of the EU renegotiation? First, to get a sufficiently better deal for Britain to make it worth staying in. Second, to win over those disgruntled about our EU membership – and about the Conservative Party’s views on it.
On the first point, if the analysis really is that someone Brussels likes will get the most out of the EU machine then it is deeply flawed. We have spent forty years rolling over and playing nice with the EU, allowing our tummies to be tickled in the hope that it means they’ll lay off the meddling and money-grabbing and start to see things our way. It hasn’t worked. The only real successes have come when we have played hardball – as Thatcher did to secure the rebate. We need someone willing to threaten the nuclear option of leaving if we are to stand any chance of getting anything like a meaningful deal (though for the record I doubt even that would secure Cameron’s ‘end to ever closer union’, still less my preferred arrangement of free trade only).
On the second criterion, Sir John Major cannot by any stretch of the imagination be portrayed as the person to win over eurosceptics – still less those who have moved to supporting UKIP. Sure, it wouldn’t be as bad as Ken Clarke’s disastrous interventions into the EU debate, in which he offends UKIP voters and recycles tired old pro-EU mantras, but it wouldn’t be a lot better. There is no angle from which the very Prime Minister whose premiership started the whole divide could be seen as credible from an anti-EU perspective. The very fact that he is being pitched as a defender of our EU membership (in order to satisfy the flawed strategy laid out above) is a sign that he won’t be able to fulfil this aim.
Of course, if he really is being touted for the gig that isn’t Sir John’s fault – it’s another symptom of the mistaken analysis of this renegotiation which has dogged it from the very start. Again, good news for those of us who believe we ought to leave the EU, as a failed renegotiation will simply boost the Out vote come 2017, but a serious problem for those who want us to reform the organisation and remain within it.