Well well… it turns out our Prime Minister has a little fight in him after all. Quick to chide cabinet ministers Gove and Hammond over their indiscretion concerning the European question, and holding the course on the 2017 date for the referendum, it seems he’s not ready to bend over to the Eurosceptics quite yet. Although doubling down on holding the referendum if renegotiation is rejected by Europe will hush the right a bit, two and half years after the general election is certainly less politically expedient than it could be. A smattering of confidence in the party’s 2015 intentions, and in his own renegotiation policy.
A cheeky little endorsement from Obama on his support for a “fix” is nice, but isn’t certain to shake more than a few MPs out of their intoxication, drunk as they are on pandering to this transient UKIP bounce. The American president isn’t exactly every conservative’s cup of tea. This week, from the comfort of a New York armchair, Cameron gave his fellow party leaders Clegg and Miliband a minor savaging on their own undetermined positions regarding the UK’s relationship with the continent. “Heads in the sand,” as the PM phrased it, omitting entirely his own firmly lodged disposition up until the last few days.
While a very large question mark remains over the issue of what this renegotiated position would look like, the suggestion is that it would come heavily down to Cameron’s individual abilities as a statesman. In the face of Hadal level confidence and even whispers amongst conservatives that here is a latter-day John Major, the embattled leader’s resurgence, of sorts, is vital to his prospects. And judging by the debate in the Commons yesterday over the Queen’s Speech and this theatre about the absence of the EU question, Cameron does appear to have turned some of the guns away from himself. Rigorous criticism was circulating around the entire House, notably in Clegg’s direction.
The amendment was easily defeated 277 to 130, but the 114 Tory MP’s who voted in favour are still a long term issue for Cameron. And with 29 year old Eurosceptic MP James Wharton winning the private member’s ballot for the first attempt at a referendum bill today, we can anticipate early problems in the process. Wharton is a staunch in/out referendum supporter and will certainly be trying to lock down the House on the 2017 date. It was by no means an overwhelming rebellion on Europe, but with backbench support up from 81 in favour of a referendum in a late 2011 vote, the already blatant swoon rightwards by some MPs is further indicated.
Now it remains to be seen how many in the Commons will actually get behind Wharton’s bill, and while it is currently likely to be shot down, the Tory’s did announce this morning that the three line-whip was coming down in favour of it. Cross-party backing is in short supply right now, although 11 Labour votes in favour of the Queen’s Speech amendment shows some desire in the opposition for Miliband to take a stronger stance on Europe, and as Tory Eurosceptic John Baron was suggesting earlier, there will be hopes a few Lib Dems could be rolled over in favour too. This issue remains something of an anathema to me though.
At the time of the Lisbon Treaty, Clegg was a bold little mouthpiece when it came to Europe, calling for a referendum then, and carrying this message through to 2008 and beyond. Despite criticising Cameron on the radio today for the renegotiation policy being “clear as mud”, where he stands and wants his party to stand on the matter is now one of Westminster’s total mysteries. To “lead the reform and then give people a say in a referendum when that leads to a change in the rules”, is ostensibly a position loyal to the coalition agreement, which stipulated that changes in the EU relationship would trigger an automatic referendum.
Sadly, the agreement also states that he and the Lib Dems have to be integral to such a reform process, and in light of Clegg’s hateful fecklessness, born from a confusing amalgam of power hunger clashing with a party political need to remain distinct from his coalition partner, I predict he will be true to his spanner-like identity. Thrust himself firmly into the works he will, the unmitigated pillock and architect of Liberal Democrat ruination. He’ll be the linchpin of political deadlock for the next two years while his party begin trying to carve themselves a more distinct and electable identity for 2015.
Rant over. They just annoy me, the Liberal Democrats. Not being a Eurosceptic myself but recognising the problematic relationship between the UK and an increasingly integrating continent, at least politically, it seems clear that public sentiment is generally in favour of strong and determined action to achieve the relationship the public is comfortable with. I believe in renegotiation, albeit ideally helmed by someone less precarious and subject to the sceptics gaze than Cameron, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong in questioning the very one track European trajectory that has been.
As disturbing as it is to say this, as long as Cameron can hold his nerve he remains the best prospect for moderate change. Labour haven’t shown signs of offering the British people what they want and I doubt the Lib Dems under Clegg will ever have the guts to follow through with their supposed position. UKIP simply want the UK to slip into obstinate and isolated ignominy with their extreme position, more to the tragic irony of their general “Rule Britannia” understanding of the world. So… yeah. If Europe is the central issue in your mind, then the man even I had virtually written off last week is indeed your flickering, faint supermarket-bought pocket torch of a thing once known as hop… shop? Hope! Hope.