Giles Marshall 10.49am
I’m not sure "Fresh Start" is quite the right name for a group of Tory MPs busy re-hashing what is by now a pretty hackneyed message. The group is publishing a report calling for the repatriation of significant powers from the EU to Britain.
So the same call that has been made by Tory MPs since Margaret Thatcher’s Bruges speech – a fresh start indeed.
Yet, of course, the group’s report is newsworthy because David Cameron is himself entering the European maelstrom, with a speech due on Friday that advance spin suggests will be redefining the British relationship with Europe and calling for a referendum on the terms of our membership. Mr Cameron is going to complete the work that Sir John Major began with Maastricht it seems, though Sir John himself had rather assumed that the Maastricht agreement was an end in itself.
The problem for Mr Cameron is that of the few policy positions he does hold, a vague Euro-scepticism is among them. This is a Prime Minister viewed with deep suspicion by the majority right-wing of his parliamentary party, and he undoubtedly sees a new Euro-scepticism as just the sort of thing to appease them with.
He should beware. There is no beast so determinedly single-minded as the Euro-sceptic Tory MP, and they will not be appeased by some vague ideas about renegotiation. Nor shall they be too happy about what must seem a far distant prospect of a referendum on Europe under a majority Tory administration, especially given its current unlikelihood.
Hatred of the EU has become part of the DNA of many Tory MPs, to the extent that any rational debate about it is virtually impossible.
Take the Obama administration. After successful reciprocal visits between President Obama and Mr Cameron, you could be forgiven for thinking that this was a transatlantic relationship built on the strongest of foundations. Back to the glory days of Reagan and Thatcher.
Well, in the sense that Reagan consistently belied his own rhetoric by following a US interest that typically denied Britain her own, I suppose it is. For all the bonhomie of Cameron and Obama, the administration has not been slow in making it very clearly known that it regards these European manouevres as unwise and potentially disastrous. A Britain isolated from Europe will not be able to rely on any special relationship with the United States. Her realpolitik views a single European unit as the most useful form of European ally. Any country standing outside of that – including Britain – will be marginalised.
American attitudes are nothing compared to those of powerful European countries such as Germany. Gunther Krichbaum, a key CDU ally of Chancellor Merkel, warned of economic disaster for Britain if she stood outside the single market. Just as British Tory euro-sceptics are vigorous in their call for ‘renegotiation’, so most European players are equally determined that Britain cannot keep treating the EU as a la carte.
Mr Cameron is more Euro-sceptic than Sir John Major. Yet he also appears to be a less effective diplomat. Andrew Rawnsley, in a thoughtful piece for the Observer on Sunday, recalled Major’s tenacious and canny diplomacy (“a gentleman”, according to one of his European adversaries, Ruud Lubbers), which yielded the opt-outs of the Maastricht Treaty. But, as Rawnsley reminds us, such opt-outs benefited Major not a bit, as he watched his 1992 election triumph dissolve into the ashes of a disastrous party war.
David Cameron is not, as I’ve noted before, a leader with deep roots in the Conservative party. It is something that isolates him, and it would be foolhardy of him to think that he can ride the Euro-sceptic bandwagon. Europe wins few votes amongst the British electorate, but a perception that Britain is an isolated, marginal figure in world affairs does resonate, and in appeasing certain MPs, Mr Cameron is heading in that direction.
He should leave Europe alone, and appropriately enough on the day of the launch of a new book about Tory modernisation, look to reinvigorating a domestic One Nation policy. Therein lies our real chance of reversing decades of Tory electoral decline.
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