Tories on Europe: 'United as never before'?


The Conservative party is "united as never before" on Europe. No, really. I just heard it on the radio.

Michael Gove said so on the morning after the night before when almost half of Conservative backbenchers refused to heed the party leadership's pleas on, er, Europe*.

Some will suggest that this proves that Team Cameron is in complete denial. I think it may suggest something more interesting.

The education secretary is not just one of the prime minister's closest friends. He is not just a very clever man. He is a lifelong and instinctive Eurosceptic. I worked with him when he was a young BBC reporter and I know.

Gove's claim was that the Conservative party was united as never before behind the goal of renegotiating Britain's relationship with the EU.

He is right that, providing Ken Clarke is not in the room, Tories can say "we're all Eurosceptics now". What divided them last night was - as I wrote yesterday - trust. Backbenchers do not trust the prime minister, the coalition and Whitehall to deliver.

What Gove may have been suggesting is that Team Cameron should switch from lecturing their party about "obsessing" about Europe and use their supporters, instead, to deliver what he called their "strategic goal" - "bringing powers back".

One problem - that is not the coalition's goal. The agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats simply states that the government should "look at the balance of competences".

So, is Gove now saying that Cameron will pressure the Lib Dems to change his party's position on Europe?

Easier said than done, you might say, but take a look at Paddy Ashdown's intriguing article in today's Times in which he calls on the EU to "rebalance" powers - to interfere less on agriculture and fishing, to "intervene much less in those matters that touch on the services of citizens within their own countries", to enforce the single market less rigidly whilst uniting more on foreign affairs.

That, of course, is much less than most Conservatives want. They want what the prime minister declared yesterday that he wanted - "fundamental reform".

Until he can spell out what that means, how he plans to deliver it and, above all, when - the question Michael Gove repeatedly dodged - he is in for a very torrid time.

* I said on the radio this morning that it was more than half of backbenchers. But sharp-eyed researchers at the BBC have since pointed out that, as well as the 79 backbench rebels (81 Tory rebels in total when you include the two ministerial aides), there were a further two backbenchers who abstained by voting both ways, and another 12 Tory MPs who did not vote at all.

At least three of these were backbenchers intending to abstain on a point of principle, while others - most notably the Foreign Secretary William Hague and junior minister Mike Penning - were abroad on duty.

Nick Robinson, Political editor Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    "If you add 15 Tory abstainers to the 81 who voted against their party line you get more than half the parliamentary party."

    Shouldn't that read "more than half of the Tory backbenchers"? The parliamentary party is bigger than 192 seats surely?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    The timing of all this couldn't be worse, for the aims of this so-called "united" Tory party re Europe.

    Much closer union will be needed to make the Euro function and police spending, taxation etc.

    The will on the mainland is to find a way to make this work. The US puppet, the Tories' UK, wants to wreck the project, and have long been rumbled over there.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    United? It's not what I see as united.
    All politicians know that they all lie to the plebs and to themselves and would not believe a word that another politician says to them apart from if that politicians was making something out of it for themselves.
    Mr Cameron has a storm brewing....and I think that he knows it only too well.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Michael Gove is a neocon. necons want the UK to stay in the EU, even if its undemocratic and damages british economy

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Isn't what happened democracy?

    In business when you want something you can't always have it all at once. So you agree what is important and then you whittle away at the rest.

    This is DC's strategy. Help Europe now, =get the bits he wants and then get more and more over time.

    Sounds great to me. And it is what we Conservatives want - more power here, less in Brussels.


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