Europe is worth fighting for - maybe not this Europe, but a better Europe is at least worth a try

Nik Darlington 10.30am

This evening the annual Macmillan Lecture is being delivered in Parliament by Damian Green, police minister and TRG vice-president.

Mr Green will state the unequivocal Conservative case for the EU, rejecting clarion calls for an immediate exit yet insisting that the British people are overdue their say on our membership. Giving the Prime Minister his strongest backing, Mr Green will make the case for allowing negotiations to proceed and for an improved settlement to be put to the British people.

Of course, the British people have every right to reject EU membership even then. Conservatives sympathetic to the EU today are not blindly uncritical. Without democratic consent the EU is but a hollow bureaucratic shell. Indeed, a shell that in this day and age looks increasingly like a fossil.

There is a case to be made for the EU, but it has to be made on Conservative principles of free trade and democracy. It is on precisely those principles that the EU’s biggest critics have assumed to abandon the field. Europe is worth fighting for. Maybe not this Europe as it stands (or falls), but a better Europe is at least worth a stab.

Only by calming down shall EU rebels get what they want, or have any colleagues left to share it

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Nik Darlington 9.54am

Yesterday on these pages, Giles questioned whether the Tory party truly wants to resist the UKIP surge, or whether the Tory party in fact embraced it. This morning on ConHome, Paul Goodman questions whether Tory MPs even want to win the next election.

For some “lunatics”, to paraphrase Mr Soames commenting yesterday, this is not wide of the mark. The MP for Ketting, Philip Hollobone (majority 9,094), is insisting on parliamentary time to debate a referendum bill and "if it ends the coalition, so be it".

That would, in all likelihood, end the Tory party’s tenure in office. It would not, in all likelihood, end Mr Hollobone’s tenure in the House of Commons.

There are however many hard-working, bright colleagues who would be sacrificed at the alter of Mr Hollobone’s (and others’) capricious whim.

To recap, John Baron (Basildon & Billericay: majority 12,398) posited a motion criticising the Queen’s Speech for not including an EU Referendum Bill. Coalition with the Liberal Democrats precludes this, however David Cameron has since announced the independent publication of a draft bill that is presumed will be taken on by the first name out of the hat for private members bills.

Mr Baron and supporters - including Peter Bone (Wellingborough: majority 11,787) and the reinstated Nadine Dorries (Mid Bedfordshire: majority 15,152) - have extracted this significant concession. Yet they press on. And on. Today’s Times (£) cartoon puts this best.

Has the Prime Minister handled this badly? Of course he has. Should a doomed stand be made against the muddled, undemocratic ranks of the Labour party, the Lib Dems, Greens and the rest? Yes, it should.

Europe is a salient issue for voters and the British people deserve a say on EU membership, pending the Prime Minister’s negotiations. For what it is worth, looking at the status quo, on balance I would vote to stay in; but it would be a close call.

It would not take much to convince me otherwise. The ‘out’ lobby has a war chest of momentum, funding and evidence. The ‘in’ lobby does not. In fact, I fear supporters of EU membership have at worst largely forgotten why they support it, and at best are relying on out-dated evidence.

Nevertheless, Europe is not the most salient issue for voters. It does not even come close. The crucial consideration in this sordid episode is that the Conservative party is being poisoned by myopia, desperation, and fears the wrong enemy.

Lance the boil. Have the debate about a referendum bill. Expose opposing parties. Be done with it.

Demonstrate to voters what this Conservative-led Government has achieved in the realms of welfare reform, schools and immigration; ram home the paucity of Labour’s alternative; press on with vital reforms to healthcare; and continue the hard but necessary work of rebuilding Britain’s economy.

Only by doing so shall the Conservative party have a hope of winning in 2015. Only be doing so shall there be a chance for an EU referendum. And only by doing so shall those MPs in safe seats who yearn for that referendum, have any colleagues left to ensure it.

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What does Jo Johnson’s appointment to Downing Street mean?

Nik Darlington 9.55am

So the backroom shake-up in Downing Street is causing a mini stir this morning.

Leaving aside the prominent headline for a moment, our biggest congratulations go to the TRG’s vice-president, Jane Ellison, who has been appointed by the Prime Minister to a new policy board of MPs. Jane is joined by backbench colleagues Jesse Norman, George Eustice, Margot James and Jake Berry, as well as former ministers Nick Gibb and Peter Lilley.

The biggest news of the morning, however, is that the Mayor of London’s younger brother shall be heading up the Number 10 Policy Unit. In a way it is a shame it is taking the gloss off the GDP growth figures in light of the BBC’s crowing it would be a triple-dip recession - but perhaps the timing tells us Downing Street was at least half expecting bad news.

That is by the by now. What does it mean?

First and most importantly, I expect the Lords & Commons cricket club shall have to make do without one of its better cricketers. Belligerent with the bat and a bowler with real pace and bounce, Jo Johnson was limbering up for a promising summer, bordering on unplayable at times in pre-season nets (though fastidiously did he protect his polished new cherry) and even electing to don a lid when batting. The club shall be even more reliant on Peter Bone’s left-arm tweakers.

Secondly, it marks an about-turn for David Cameron, who till now has employed a civil servant in the role. It demonstrates a beefing up of Number 10’s political clout and provides a direct link between policymaking and the parliamentary party.

Yet how cosy and effective (to all tastes) that link shall be, only time will tell. Jo Johnson has done a stint as a party whip, so backbenchers have had plenty of experience of his enforcing Government policy, less so working with them to formulate policy (which we presume is the main point behind the switch-around).

Nonetheless, the third significant point is that Jo Johnson is easily one of the more cerebral of the 2010 intake and with his hinterland (handful of degrees, financier, journalist, edited the Lex column etc), he will bring an intellectual thrust to the role. Again, this might grate with backbenchers who yearn for a more bread and circuses brand of politics, or a harking back to the black and white certainties of Thatcherism (neglecting, of course, to recall how reliant Mrs Thatcher’s policies, particularly economic, were on intellectuals).

He is also relatively pro-European, at least significantly more so than the vast majority of MPs. This may be something to do with his FT background (though media organisations tend to be self-selecting) or simply that he has actually spent some years studying and working on the continent. Some might make more of this than it is worth, given that David Cameron’s EU policy (in many ways markedly more Eurosceptic than Mrs Thatcher) is largely decided. Nonetheless, Jo Johnson is no John Redwood (the latter, for instance, is far cannier a bowler).

Then there’s the brouhaha about his older brother, which many in the media will be fixated on between now and the next election (and perhaps beyond). The sensible will do best to ignore it.

All in all, it is an intriguing development. Jo Johnson is a brilliant pick for the policy unit. As a go-between for Number 10 and the parliamentary party, time shall tell, the onus perhaps resting more with backbenchers than the man in question.

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The One Nation Tory is alive and well: a response to John Harris

Nik Darlington 2.30pm

The passing of Baroness Thatcher has elicited a great deal of Tory stock-taking and soul-searching, as well as comment upon comment upon comment as to what the legacy is of Britain’s longest-serving Prime Minister of the twentieth century. As John Harris wrote in the Guardian"Thatcher’s death has Britain peering back through time".

In a subsequent article, born from his introspective itinerary around Britain researching Lady Thatcher’s legacy, Harris asks readers to “spare a thought for the late unlamented one-nation Tory”. His argument is that “centrist, socially-concerned Conservatism” had already died long before her, and largely because of her doing.

Let’s be frank. The Tory Reform Group, its members and leading political representatives have not always seen eye to eye with all aspects of Thatcherism. Respected her achievements and they way she led the country in dark times, yes; but there have been policy disagreements along the way.

However, Harris is simply wrong. The ‘One Nation Tory’ might be a minority concern in today’s Conservative party, dominated as it is by people who cut their teeth during Mrs Thatcher’s battling leadership of the party, and the aftermath; but it is alive and well. Harris claims that every year he attends the Conservative party conference "looking for any signs of its revival…but it is nowhere to be seen". Based on attending a ConservativeHome fringe event, that is not surprising. Did he not care to call in to any TRG events, which every year seem to outnumber those of other Tory groups? Even stars of stage and screen turned up to Ken Clarke’s midnight party last year.

It is perhaps fashionable to presume there are no centrist Tories left, which is peculiar considering the efforts of David Cameron to steer the Conservative party in just such a direction - and indeed, it is more plausible to say that the party did not make it fully over the line in 2010 because it had not moved far enough in that direction, than it is to say it moved too far. It is even more peculiar coming from a Guardian writer, when that newspaper has on occasion so wholeheartedly championed Mr Cameron’s stewardship.

Perhaps it is simply thus: no Tory of whatever ilk can be as “centrist” or “socially-concerned” as the GuardianHarris may be a columnist, not an editorial writer, but he does a fine job of blending into his surroundings.

Harris is right that too slavish an adherence to the free market - a common and unfortunate conclusion reached by today’s self-proclaimed Thatcherites - has landed post-Thatcher political parties (including the Labour party) in hot water. As Sir Ian Gilmour said, “the balance will have to be redressed”.

Harris is right that the present plethora of Tory groups, if they coalesce at all, do so around one interpretation of Mrs Thatcher’s policies. Yet this misses the point, which is that the fact a plethora exists suggests how confused even Conservatives remain about her legacy and what to do with it.

Harris wonders “what would happen if the grandees of pre-Thatcher Conservatism were raised from the grave, and confronted with Britain’s current problems”. He need not resort to table-turning, though many have indeed passed away. Just look at Lord Heseltine’s continued role in public life at the ripe old age of eighty. His growth review, which at its heart recommends a more decentralised approach, has largely been accepted by the Government. Meanwhile, Ken Clarke’s experience, not least as a successful Chancellor of the Exchequer, remains indispensable to the Government. Though not necessarily a ‘pre-Thatcher grandee’, Lord Baker is a life member of the TRG and remains an influential figure in education policy.

Ed Miliband, as Harris says, has “tentatively” attempted to expropriate the ‘One Nation’ theme for the Labour party. I spelled out last October why Mr Miliband’s interesting approach falls flat. His post-Blair (and by extension, post-Thatcher) Labour party is in the grip of myriad interest groups fixated by an ideological nihilism. Signs of this are bubbling to the surface even in his own positioning, until now so often non-committal.

Michael Gove recently told a Policy Exchange gathering that in order to interpret her legacy honestly, we have to view Mrs Thatcher as a “historical figure” - much, indeed, with the detachment we deploy to consider Sir Winston Churchill, or William Gladstone, or even Pitt. Most agree that her prescriptions and demeanour were right for her time. Party political Conservatism has moved on; Thatcherism has moved on too. It means different things to its adherents today than perhaps it did even to Mrs Thatcher herself. In the same vein, One Nation Conservatism, so sidelined since the 1990s (and largely to do with a single policy issue: Europe), has moved on.

Our relative anonymity, and the fact John Harris thinks we are dead, might well be a problem. Yet we have in power a largely centrist, modernising Conservative-led government dealing with economic disruption and deeply moral dislocation - not least in education and welfare policy - that the opposition Labour party refuses to confront.

So while the Tory Reform Group does need to do more to get its message heard above the cacophony of Conservative voices (small ‘v’), I respectfully believe Harris’ pessimism is misplaced.

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Margaret Thatcher’s message for the TRG’s inaugural conference in 1975

Nik Darlington 9.00am

The morning’s newspapers are devoted to the death of Baroness Thatcher. The TRG made a statement yesterday and I made my own comments later.

While millions around the world mourn her passing, we remember her words at this organisation’s birth, in September 1975.

"I am pleased to learn of the formation of this new and vigorous group, and thank you for your good wishes to me as Leader of the Conservative Party.

As a nation, we face three problems:

First, we must beat inflation, or it will destroy the basis of our society.

Second, we must secure the future of economic and political liberty by genuinely distributing power and property among our people—a policy which is the reverse of that which the present Government is pursuing.

Third, we must play an active and influential part in world affairs, showing concern both for the western democratic ideal and for those nations whose primary task is to overcome poverty.

It is good to know that the Conservative Party can look to the Tory Reform Group for creative and practical ideas on these matters and for the will to see them through. We face the future with a sense of hope, and confidence in the capacity of our people to cope with whatever lies ahead.”

Peter Walker, the founder of the Tory Reform Group, who served under Mrs Thatcher as Energy Secretary in the pivotal period of the miners’ strike, responded with the following words:

"The members of the Tory Reform Group are holding their inaugural conference in London today and have asked me to convey to you their good wishes and to express to you their determination to do all in their power to see the early return of a Conservative Government and the defeat of the Socialist Government that is doing so much harm to our country.

They have also asked me to tell you that besides your being able to rely upon their fullest support in bringing victory to our Party they hope they will be able to make a creative and constructive contribution to the preparation of our Party’s policies for the years that lie ahead.”

The “Socialist Government” was indeed defeated in 1979. Margaret Thatcher went on to revolutionise British politics, and change the course of not one but two political parties as even her Labour opponents under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown comprehended the sea change before them.

For our part, the Tory Reform Group remains wholly committed to continuing that “creative and constructive contribution” as we all work towards the return of a Conservative Government in 2015.

What is Mrs Thatcher’s legacy? Britain.

Nik Darlington 4.30pm

Margaret Thatcher did not get everything right. What politician does? But her legacy is not just a few policies here, a few new organisations there. Her legacy is the Britain we know. For how many politicians can we say that?

She changed the direction of the country’s travel. Not by a margin of degrees, but by right angles.

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne wrote recently:

"In a way that is probably hard for those who did not live through this period to understand, for the best part of that decade the very existence of the British state appeared to be under threat. Politicians from all mainstream parties seemed quite unable to cope with what appeared to be insoluble problems. Only the far Left was wholly confident of the answers, and the situation only started to clarify with Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 general election."

The very existence of the British state. Say those words again. The more you do, the more implausible it sounds - but on a certain level it is as plausible as the rising sun. Over the course of the troubled 1970s, Britain had become nigh on ungovernable. Like today, global currents were in part sweeping the country along a course it could neither understand nor control. Yet infamous “enemies within” wrecked successive government attempts to reign them in - whether Ted Heath’s industrial policies of the first half of the decade, or Wilson and Callaghan’s palliative care in the latter half.

Ken Clarke said in 1985, when Paymaster-General:

"When we returned to office in 1979 one very major reason was that we were elected to curb excessive trade union power…and the abuse of trade union power vis-à-vis employees within trade unions.  The background was that a good Government had been swept out of power in 1974 by a political miner’s strike, and the Labour Government in the late 1970s had been firmly controlled by trade union bosses."

Mrs Thatcher’s government learned valuable lessons from her Tory predecessor’s failures. In contrast to the popular perception of her as a bludgeon, she was cautious. She knew when to pick her fights. She was better prepared. And she had an answer to the economic malaise of the time.

Following the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Britain witnessed its lowest rate of industrial unrest for half a century, with 1.92 million working days lost in 1986. In 1974, the country lost 14.75 million working days and over 6 million in 1975. The alleged ‘Winter of Discontent’ contributed to almost 29.5 million working days lost in 1979 alone. Thenceforth, strike activity was in overall decline - with the obvious exception in 1985.

We can argue till the end of our days about the merits, motives and consequences of Mrs Thatcher’s policies - and people will continue to do so, not least because hers is a fascinating period of study. When an undergraduate, I took a history course named, simply, ‘Thatcherism’ (taught by one of the 364 economists, no less). It converted me from a misty-eyed admirer to an awed, respectful and yet critical supporter. It enthralled me like only a genuine watershed in history can.

It cannot ever be doubted that Mrs Thatcher stood firm to her purpose. Her obduracy on certain issues earned her enemies, but it earned her many, many more adherents. ‘You may not have agreed with her, but at least you knew where she stood,’ is the typical refrain.

The Thatcher legacy is rich and multi-faceted. On industrial policy, certainly, she made the greatest break with the immediate past - not least in that she succeeded in bringing (relative) harmony where there was discord. On many other policies, she set in train a revolution that has traversed three decades of British life: privatisation for instance (a word she hated), a liberal economy based on a powerful and flexible financial sector (and subsequently fruitful symbiosis between other professional services such as law and accountancy), and - oft forgotten - a firm hand of environmental protection.

Today we remember across the newsreels - and tomorrow across the newspapers - a great woman, and a great Briton. Meanwhile a family weeps, a country stops, and an entire world mourns.

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I can see no circumstances by which this blog can be regulated by the government’s attempt at press regulation

Nik Darlington

So the lacklustre rigmarole of a Royal Charter takes another turn. The House of Lords has been debating whether to exempt small blogs from the new cross-party press regulations.

The Government is considering its own response to the quandary posed by Internet blogs like Guido Fawkes that are based overseas.

It can be argued that a result of the Internet age is faster, better connected, more nimble scrutiny of the holders of power. Politicians and press barons have been in each other’s pockets for decades, and to suppose this is a new phenomenon is naïve.

Yet political bloggers are beholden to no greater power (at least that is what they claim - and most ought to be believed). Unlike newspapers with their failing business model, most bloggers have no paying market of consumers to chase.

How does a Government get to grips with curtailing them in the manner it is attempting to curtail the mainstream press? To murder a phrase, qui regulates ipsos regulatiem?

It can’t. Which is why ministers, shadow ministers and advisers are hurriedly trying to patch up this particular hole (of several) in the new regulations.

For our part, I am not entirely aware yet whether as de facto digital lessees of Tumblr, the Egremont blog falls into the same category as Guido Fawkes - i.e. an offshore concern.

That small print aside, there are no circumstances under which I can see our being subject to this attempt at regulation. Zero funding, zero revenue, and a relatively small but of course highly influential and intelligent band of readers.

So for Egremont at least, it is business as usual.

A chance underwater encounter in New Caledonia

Nik Darlington 11.50am

We hovered in clear blue mid-water, soaring over a pristine piste of snow-white sand. Twenty metres to the shimmering sun on the surface, another five to the seabed below.

Out of the deeper-blue distance, I spotted shards of silver and grey. Then another. Those shards became shapes; the shapes became a grey-blue shadow.

Yannick and I locked eyes, nodded and returned our sights to the enlarging shadow. Rapt. In this silent world, a look conveys more than words.

The shadow took form. A sleek six feet, maybe slightly more. The distance shortened, but slowly, as is its want, until a natural cordon ten metres in diameter was formed.

Yannick and I assumed the safest, recommended stance: back-to-back, never take your eyes off its circling form. Precautionary, of course, but truly indeed just to maintain a good look of it. Such economy of movement. So at home.

Unlike Yannick and I, thrill-seeking spectators in an alien environment. Though this is voyeurism with risks. Its graceful orbit became tighter, to the point of its being suffocating. At moments like this one appreciates the non-contradiction of claustrophobia in open water.

Admiration quickly became apprehension. No more than five metres separated us. Little more than two times it.

Then it stopped. Time stood still. Noiselessness interrupted by a noise so inimitable, yet unforgettable. Like a vehicle exhaust backfiring, or the expert crack of a whip.

By the time I had realised it was heading towards us, the sleek form had become a shadow once more. Then shards of silver and grey. Then nothing. All that remained was the shudder of displaced water against my stiffened body. Hairs don’t often stand on end under water.

Yannick and I locked eyes, and smiled.

Yesterday in Bangkok, the oceanic white tip shark was given unprecedented protection by CITES. Its numbers are in dramatic decline as a result of barbaric fishing practices (its prominent dorsal fin is a prized ingredient for Oriental pottage and eccentric medicines).

Opposition from China and Japan has long prevented its accession to a list of protected species but now, alongside three types of hammerheads and the porbeagle, the vulnerable oceanic white tip has been given a stay of execution.

Sharks are too often misunderstood, mistreated and maligned in fiction and film. As our understanding of sharks has increased, however, nations around the world have come to realise their immense worth and intrinsic beauty. Apparently the sea change has been arrived at in part by South American countries comprehending the vast tourism dollars that come with healthy shark stocks.

In coming into direct contact with sharks big and small over the years, I have certainly come to know fear and delight in equal measure. Fear is a good thing - it engenders respect. And is the truest basis for the sublime. There aren’t many good news stories where sharks are concerned. This is one.

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