James Landale: David Cameron and Conservative EU rebels

 

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Unless something utterly unexpected knocks the stuffing out of the parliamentary timetable and a substantial minority of the Conservative parliamentary party have woken up to discover they have lost their vertebrae, David Cameron is poised to suffer the biggest rebellion of his premiership later.

The current holders of the record are the 41 Conservative MPs who chose just a week or two ago to vote against their government on a motion affecting the timetable of the Protection of Freedoms Bill.

The promised rebellion, according to the very excellent Philip Cowley of Nottingham University - the Bill Frindall of parliamentary rebellions - would not only be Mr Cameron's biggest revolt - if it tops that magic 41 - but it would also be the largest revolt ever by Conservative MPs in government over Europe. Period, as the Americans say.

The issue at hand in the House of Commons vote at 10pm may be a piece of so-called backbench business on a motion that is binding on no-one, but it matters.

It matters not because it would force anyone to hold a referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union. It would not. But it matters because of what it tells us of Mr Cameron's fractious relationship with his MPs and the potential consequences for the management of the coalition government.

Here are a few thoughts:

1. Why oh why has the government played hardball on this? Why didn't the government just roll over and allow its MPs to let off a little steam over a non-binding vote while Messrs Cameron, Hague and Osborne were overseas? To find the answer to this question that has so vexed Tory MPs over the weekend, ministers urge you to look carefully at the wording of the motion. It reads thus: "That this House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the UK should a) remain a member of the European Union on the current terms; b) leave the European Union; c) re-negotiate the terms of its relationship in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation."

There are two big no-nos in there. One is that it directly instructs the government to introduce a bill in the next parliament. This, say ministers, would be unacceptable to any government. Parliament does not tell governments what bills to introduce and when. If the motion had been less instructional and less specific, it would have caused less concern in Downing Street. Ministers note that the division earlier this year urging the government to oppose giving prisoners the vote was an expression of opinion, not an instruction to action, and thus ministers were able to roll with the punch. The second problem is more straightforward. It is not government policy to leave the EU. Downing Street insiders note dryly that the only large party to campaign on withdrawal from the EU were Labour in 1983. Any referendum that included the option of leaving the EU could never have been accepted by Downing Street. And whatever the rebels say about this being a non-binding motion, if it were passed, they would quite legitimately bang on about an in/out referendum being the will of the Commons until the cows were tucked up in bed and dreaming of clover.

There is also, say others, the small matter of Mr Cameron wishing to avoid: a) headlines using the word "u-turn", b) accusations that he can be pushed around by a section of his party and c) comparisons with John Major's push-me-pull-you relationship with his party's eurosceptics.

2. Why has the government appeared to be in such a muddle over this, changing the day of the vote and winding up so many of its backbenchers? Some ministers are prepared to admit privately that the government could have handled this better. They were not clear from day one that this was a three line whip issue, something on which the government could not move. They allowed the rebels to believe that there was flexibility when there was not. They hinted that this was a second order issue by fielding junior ministers in the media and scheduling junior ministers for the debate. Tory MPs could not understand why the government would chose to use a three line whip against a measure that arose from two mechanisms - the backbench business committee and the use of petitions - that the coalition itself championed.

3. This is a fight that both sides knew was going to happen one day. There is a strong eurosceptic sentiment in the current House of Commons. Thus far it has been diffuse, its focus spread across a range of issues from repatriating powers, to membership referendums, to the proceedings of the European Court of Human Rights. This vote crystallises all that sentiment and provides an outlet, uniting for the first time the eurosceptics of yore like Bill Cash and John Redwood with the new intake of Conservative MPs elected last year. Ministers knew there would be a clash one day and this is it. Their greater fear is if there were to be a vote on a substantive motion, such as whether or not Britain should fund another European bail out, or support a financial transaction tax so beloved of the European Commission. The reason ministers fear such votes is because they know they could not win them.

4. This is not just about Europe. This is also about party management. Many Conservative backbenchers are unhappy about a range of issues and are therefore less ready to listen to their whips and more ready to allow instinct to outweigh loyalty. In no particular order, some Tory MPs are upset about: the existence of the coalition and their perception that too many concessions have been made to the Liberal Democrats; the boundary changes that are making them nervous and keener to appeal to their eurosceptic party memberships; the cull of MPs itself; the lack of attention that they feel David Cameron has been paying them; the failure of the government to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty; the recent appointment to government of women elected in 2010 over the heads of the 2005 intake; the growing awareness of many Tory MPs that they might never be ministers and are liberated as a result. The eurozone crisis has also put the wind in the sails of many eurosceptic MPs who feel vindicated after being marginalised for years.

5. So what happens now? The crucial moment could come not in the debate itself but during the statement that precedes it. Mr Cameron is due to be on his feet for an hour or so from 3.30pm informing the House about the European summit on Sunday. But his bigger task will be to answer questions about why a referendum on Britain's EU membership is not right now. The obvious point he will make is that this is a distraction when the eurozone is in such crisis. He will also go further and make it clear that Britain has to prepare for huge change within the EU in the very short term. There could be substantial treaty changes within the next few years. Three "Europes" could emerge: an inner core of the eurozone bound together by greater fiscal union, an outer core of northern euro countries who are cautious about more integration, and the ten EU members outside the eurozone. The prime minister will argue - as he did on Sunday- that Britain should use this transformation to protect and advance Britain's national interests by repatriating certain powers from Brussels to London.

But, I am told, he may also suggest that such treaty change could prompt a referendum anyway if all 27 member states were affected and it transferred powers from London to Brussels, particularly over the single market. This is existing government policy. So watch closely to see if the prime minister hints at a possible referendum and if so, how hard he pushes the idea. His point would be: there is no need to push for an in/out referendum now because you are going to get a referendum sooner than you think anyway.

6. What will the rebellion mean for the future? The number of MPs who have tasted rebellion for the first time will have grown and it is often a taste they can learn to live with. It will be a rebellion that will set the tone for future debates and votes about Europe that could come to dominate the latter half of this parliament if the eurozone crisis forces institutional change. It will send a signal to voters that while many of David Cameron's MPs respect him, they don't always feel loyalty towards him, and that is something that voters tend to note and inwardly digest. It will allow Labour to compare Mr Cameron with John Major and claim the Tories are divided over Europe. But above all, the rebellion will cost Mr Cameron political capital that perhaps he may have preferred to spend in tougher times in the years ahead. There will be bigger votes and more important votes and from today he will find it harder to get the numbers he wants.

 

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 63.

    Many Europeans see the British as unreliable fair-weather friends. As long as Britain is profiting from the common-market (which of course they still do) then it was not so bad being European. When it then comes to helping other Europeans out, who are for many different reasons not doing so well, then selfish nationalism shows its ugly head.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 62.

    My instinct is to support a referendum. But I have broader worries, casting doubt on the impact of a referendum vote, either way. I am not sure whether the civil service in its heart or in terms of capability is [any longer] willing or even able to manage a return of powers and (more to the point) responsibilities in some areas. Also, media interests would obfuscate & mislead fair and full debate.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 61.

    I am looking forward to NATO bombing Westminster to restore democracy in this country. It appears only direct,aggressive and violent action will make our MP's listen to their constituents and this rejection of popular concern is going to reverberate around this country. Loading us up with ever more debt whilst not giving us any say is going to weaken our democratic position in the longer term.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 60.

    There are several issues that confuse me about the pro European argument. Would Europe really want to refuse to trade with us and ignore 60+ million customers? Would withdrawal from the CAP and CFP not benefit farmers and fishermen in this country? If I give someone £100 and they allow me to have £50 back, that to me is a bad deal. The people in this country demanding a vote deserve to be heard.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 59.

    re: #32. paulnaj
    >>>Referenda are not good for democracy. ...We should leave these matters to MPs and ministers - that's what we elect them for.

    We elect them to carry out the policies in their manifesto. We elect them to be honest and exercise power so that commercial interests do not swamp the common good. Their track record in all these areas (and more) does not inspire me to share your view.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 58.

    So many posters on here are conflating two issues & concluding that people in favour of the one, must also be in favour of the other. Issue 1 is whether a "people's petition" should be freely voted upon in the House of Commons or vetoed for party reasons. Issue 2 is, should the UK be in or out of the EU. As JL has said the thing has been laughably badly handled. The electorate will not forget.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 57.

    Is it just me or are all UK politicans and most BBC journalists completely ill-informed about the relative state of the UK economy compared to the big eurozone economies? For Cameron to say that the "neighbour's house is on fire" is ridiculous white-washing. By all measures that count, the UK is in a much worse state than the Germans or French he's apparently trying to give lessons to.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 56.

    James Landale stated in his 6pm TV news report today "the important thing about the MP's vote is the measure of how much the Backbenchers agree with the coalition's policy".
    WRONG!
    The important thing is for this Government to recognise what the British populace actually want.
    The coalition are, like all politicians before them, very careful to ignore this.
    The phrase is "in/out referendum".

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 55.

    If the Euro is doomed then so is the UK but more so. Are you ready to lose your savings when the banks go down? And the food riots that will follow?

    And if Germany is fiscally incompetent then I wonder how come it's the profitable country in Europe, unlike us?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 54.

    Now the Germans are saying there's only one way to save the Euro and that is if they form a Federal Government!

    NEVER!

    The Euro is in complete MELTDOWN (Italy revealed today it is going to need an initial 250 Billion bailout next year that will completely empty the Eurozone coffers)

    The Euro is doomed - but we don't need to sink with it just because France and Germany are fiscally incompetent

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 53.

    52. Space
    Be careful what you say without information. Free healthcare in Spain is for all EU citizens and not only for those registered whether in the local council or in one of the British consulates. The UK only pays the healthcare of pensioners (although Spain pays the medication) and not of the other residents. According to the Foreign Office over 1,000,000 Britons live in Spain.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 52.

    fercape - be careful using wikipedia. There are around 300 000 British officially registered and around 100 000 claiming pensions in Spain. Obviously these figures are wrong as there are actually actually thought to be 1 million British there, with a great many of them pensioners - they just don't register there! Free healthcare if registered (But UK still pays) - the rest come home for treatment.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 51.

    When people talk about the EU dictatorship or this country being ruled by Europe perhaps they don't know the difference between dictatorships as in Eastern Europe not so long ago, and 27 democratically elected heads of governement deciding together what they want to do in those 27 countries. I suggest you return to school or live in Myanmar. In a dictatorship you couldn't even TALK of a referendum

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 50.

    47.Space
    You either got it all wrong or are lying on purpose. Of the over 800,000 Brits living permanently in Spain, only 21.5% are retired.The others are working or running pubs (Specialised job?). All of them enjoy free health care, and some which are not resident there, go to Spain because the waiting lists are not so long. The majority of Rumanian immigrants in the EU are in Italy and Spain.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 49.

    I was living in Germany at the time of the last referendum and saw the clear benefits of a trade agreement. I never foresaw the surrender of sovreignty or the huge unaccountable gravy train which is the European Parliament (makes our parliamentary expenses scandal seem like school playground stuff). We will never be in a position to renegotiate our membership from within. We must leave first.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 48.

    When we had a referendum on the 'Common Market' as it was known then, it was sold to us by the Heath government as a trade agreement only, there was no mention of this country being ruled by Europe, no mention of immigration. We should be able to come out of Europe because we were given wrong information on the referendum forms. I voted against it and I still feel the same way, GET US OUT NOW

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 47.

    Another reason to leave. The EU's wonderful free movement of "workers" has meant one thing for the UK - our pensioners scoot off to Spain to spend their pensions (though continently return to the NHS when they get sick) And in return we get Romanians begging and Polish taking jobs by the million.

    Most of the real UK workers that go to the EU are specialists who would be able to work there anyway!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 46.

    James to need to talk to Mark D'Arcy re Parliamentary procedure.

    When I asked him on his blog if the Government HAD to bring forward a bill (and ensure it passed) if the motion carried he told me 'no' because the motion simply 'calls upon' rather than 'instructs'

    (BTW the next session of Parliament is NOT the same as the next Parliment).

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 45.

    Should read - David Cameron Vs Conservative EU rebels + 90% of Uk population.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 44.

    As one of only 3 or 4 net contributors to the EU budget It costs more than its worth. Given that we have a trade deficite with EU countries such as Germany they are hardly going to start a trade battle with us are they?

 

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