Europe: The bomb's ticking louder

European Parliament in Brussels The PM will meet with other EU leaders in Brussels at the weekend

William Hague once warned David Cameron that Europe was "a ticking bomb" which could blow up the Conservative party. The ticking just got louder.

I had a "back to the future" feeling when the Today programme's lead item this morning was one Conservative MP arguing with another about Europe.

I felt almost nostalgic for the Major years. Not so the prime minister and the foreign secretary who remember the fatal divisions in their party over Europe all too well.

The question now facing them is how to avoid a dangerous fissure opening up as a result of Monday's Commons vote on an EU referendum.

If the government sticks to its public line - a three-line whip to oppose giving the public their first vote on Europe since 1975 - that's just what they'll get.

The vote will not be binding on the government (that's because it's a backbench debate triggered under a new mechanism which allows petitions with more than 100,000 signatures to be given Commons time). Unless Labour decides to abstain to cause the prime minister trouble there is little chance it would be passed.

That's what Labour's former leader John Smith did to John Major over the Maastricht Treaty but, as yet, all the signs are that Ed Miliband will whip his MPs into opposing the referendum.

However, the wounds of a substantial rebellion on Europe would not quickly heal.

Postponement possiblilty

The Tory backbenchers' shop steward, Graham Brady, is proposing a "free vote" of Tory backbenchers with ministers abstaining.

The chairman of the 1922 Committee writes in today's Telegraph that: "this is a backbench debate, and there is no need for ministers to participate. What matters is that backbench MPs of all parties should be free to vote in accordance with our beliefs and in the interests of our constituents.

Graham Brady MP Graham Brady was shadow Europe minister in 2004-2007

"The Coalition Agreement commits ministers to examining 'the balance of the EU's existing competences'. I believe that a clear vote in the Commons next week will strengthen their hand in negotiations, as the debate on votes for prisoners did last February."

There is another proposal coming from the sort of Eurosceptics with whom the government can do business.

It's an amendment to the referendum motion promising a White Paper to examine "the balance of the EU's existing competences" with the promise of a referendum at a future date.

The wording of any such amendement would have not just to satisfy potential rebels but also the Speaker. Unless it includes a promise of a referendum it might be categorised as a "wrecking amendment" and, therefore, not put to the vote.

The first idea would open up a gulf between ministers and their backbenchers. The second has been designed to be as acceptable as possible to the Liberal Democrats but could, nevertheless, open divisions between the two halves of the coalition.

If neither of these ideas prove acceptable to David Cameron he'll have to give something else to quieten those who've been told for years not to "obsess" about Europe and now feel that events have proved them right.

Incidentally, some have wondered whether Liam Fox might step forward to lead the calls for a referendum. I hear that he will not.

PS. Arguably the much bigger story about Europe is the continuing failure of France and Germany to agree about how to rescue the eurozone.

Last night President Sarkozy left his wife's bedside without waiting for the arrival of their new baby daughter. He flew instead to Frankfurt for the leaving party for the Head of the European Central Bank where he just happened to bump into the chancellor of Germany and president of the European Commission.

There was no deal over drinks. The French want the ECB to cover the euro bailout. The Germans insist that that would be to undermine the bank's historic role to control inflation.

The markets are watching as Europe fails to get its act together. This is, as one well-informed watcher put it, serious edge-of-the-cliff stuff.

Nick Robinson Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    A 3 line whip is basically dishonest. It shows again the politicians contempt for those that elected them.

    The 'petition to debate' offer is now devalued, and my opinion of politicians has just sunk even lower.

    I am less concerned about splitting the Tory party than eroding my rights.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    This govt reminded me previously of the John Major govt where it staggered from one scandal to the next. This is another similarity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    As per usual divide within a divided Government and we pay for this petty fighting.

    We should have never entered the EU to begin with - the argument was there and proven that the EU would blight our lives in time to come and it has done that at a very frequent level.

    Time that this was put to the UK public in an open vote instead of politicians making our minds up for us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    @ 5. Geoff

    I agree.

    tick... Tick... TICK...

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    Heseltine, correctly in my view, identified the huge damage being done to this nation, by the purposeful misrepresentation of European issues in the (as he put it) "North American" owned UK press. Although Hague identifies a perfectly credible threat to his party, I don't see such heavyweights at work today.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    The whips system brings disrepute to the Commons. Unfortunately its grip on our non democracy is unlikely to be removed.

    If backbenchers of all parties really wanted to wield influence they should debate the abolition of whips, all votes to be free votes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Times have changed, the EU's role has changed. The fact that all three main parties have reneged on promises for referenda will I hope make this uncomfortable for all three parties. As the 1922 chairman said this morning, country first, party second, career third. Its not before time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Another distraction by the failing tory regime ?

    Economy flatlined, even regime elements forced to admit double dip on the way, public sector job losses DOUBLE the level predicted by 'indpendent' OBR, inflation out of control, standard of living falling (well for ordinary people)

    The ongoing domestic economic failure will bring the downfall of this regime, not nonsense about europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    The damage was done last time by those backing Ken Clarke's position. I'd love to see it again, but he's (perhaps deliberately, for this reason) been damaged by the misrepresentation of his judicial views etc. I don't identify anyone else, really either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    No matter what happens MP's always show a total disregard for what the public want. The last vote we as a nation had was to join the European Economic Community (common market) but the EEC has long since changed (not for the good). Political parties are afraid to ask the nation as they know that they'll get the answer they dont want to hear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    "William Hague once warned David Cameron that Europe was "a ticking bomb" which could blow up the Conservative party."

    Well, we can but hope....

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    EdMil and DC are using a 3 line whip! Both are cowards , and BBC should stop focusing on it being a 'tory' issue . It is a National issue , even Labourites who understand the UKs future want a referendum ... it is not a dirty word!

    I don't care if I'm right or wrong , I just want a debate and a say !!
    In a democracy you involve the public......

    ...or is Barosso in charge ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Why doesn't Cameron simply tell the Liberals to go hang themselves? They are not going to risk an election, in which they would be wiped out, so he need not worry about losing his beloved office (all he cares about). All this talk, all these promises but no action whatsoever. Conservatives I know (personally I resigned when Cameron took over) have nothing but contempt for Cameron.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    "I felt almost nostalgic for the Major years."

    ... I wonder why that was, Nicholas...

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Willian Hague, for once, seems right.


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