The Conservative Party conference took place last week.  At last year’s, David Cameron included the following passage in his speech:

“…we know the bigger issue today is migration from within the EU. Immediate access to our welfare system. Paying benefits to families back home. Employment agencies signing people up from overseas and not recruiting here. Numbers that have increased faster than we in this country wanted at a level that was too much for our communities, for our labour markets. All of this has to change – and it will be at the very heart of my renegotiation strategy for Europe. Britain, I know you want this sorted so I will go to Brussels, I will not take no for an answer and when it comes to free movement – I will get what Britain needs.”

The following spring, the Conservative Manifesto declared that “we will…control migration from the European Union, by reforming welfare rules.  It went on to pledge that –

“We will negotiate new rules with the EU, so that people will have to be earning here for a number of years before they can claim benefits, including the tax credits that top up low wages. Instead of something-for- nothing, we will build a system based on the principle of something-for-something. We will then put these changes to the British people in a straight in-out referendum on our membership of the European Union by the end of 2017.”

However, today’s Sunday Telegraph repeats a claim that has been circulating for some time: that “any hope of major changes to the EU’s migration laws has been all but abandoned because smaller countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and Poland have refused point-blank to consider limits on migrant numbers.” So far from being “at the heart of [the Prime Minister’s] renegotiation strategy”, welfare-based immigration control will apparently not be part of it at all.  And he won’t have take no for an answer only because he won’t be asking the question in the first place.

Furthermore, some of the detail in that manifesto is absent from the list of Government demands, including continuing “to ensure that defence policy remains firmly under British national control”, resisting “EU attempts to restrict legitimate financial services activities”, pressing “for lower EU spending, further reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and Structural Funds, and for EU money to be focused on promoting jobs and growth”.

Instead, it reports, the Government will push for a four-part plan:

  • “An explicit statement” that Britain will be kept out of any move towards a European superstate. This will require an exemption for the UK from the EU’s founding principle of “ever closer union”.
  • An “explicit statement” that the euro is not the official currency of the EU, making clear that Europe is a “multi-currency” union.
  • A new “red card” system to bring power back from Brussels to Britain. This would give groups of national parliaments the power to stop unwanted directives being handed down and to scrap existing EU laws.
  • A new structure for the EU itself. The block of 28 nations must be reorganised to prevent the nine countries that are not in the eurozone being dominated by the 19 member states that are, with particular protections for the City of London.

This last aim has been stressed by George Osborne, and will not be at all easy to realise.  Rolling back the acquis as part of a “red card” system is surely a no-no.  So it cannot be presumed that the renegotiation will be plain sailing for the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, and the Government.

However, the Telegraph account and what we already know paint a picture of shrinking renegotiation demands.  It looks as though Cameron will break his commitment on immigration reform.  Some specific demands, such as protection for the City, will be rolled into the “red card” objective. Others, such as applying UK transparency laws to the whole EU, seem to have been dropped: see Business for Britain’s ten-point list of Conservative demands previously made.

It would be easy to mock the Prime Minister’s apparent about-turn on immigration, or to assail him for apparently breaking a manifesto commitment and U-turning on his 2014 Party Conference speech.  We prefer to see the Telegraph‘s report, if correct, as an opportunity rather than a problem.

For even if Cameron wins a commitment to all his objectives in the coming negotiation, it will be meaningless without treaty change.  And unless our common continent is hit by some unexpected convulsion, there will be no such alteration: other European Governments have bigger fish, as they see it, to fry than meeting British renegotiation demands, and are set against opening a Pandora’s Box (which is what treaty change would mean).

Furthermore, as Liam Fox has pointed out, rewriting the treaty would require referendums in France, the Netherlands and Spain.  So even were Cameron to win all his demands, they could not be made meaningful without the consent of voters in Kerry North-West Limerick, Friesland, Pyrénées-Atlantiques and so on.  The Prime Minister’s agenda clarifies the choice – for voters, party members, Conservative MPs, Boris Johnson and such Ministers as Michael Gove and Theresa May.

It’s either Remain on roughly the present terms or Leave.  ConservativeHome doesn’t like those terms and wants to Leave.  Your view, Boris?  Michael?  Theresa?