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Steve Richards: Number Ten is disturbed by the debates sparked by e-petitions


Power to the People is always one of the most potent slogans in British politics. No leader would enter an election arguing in favour of less power for the people.

Empowerment can take many forms, most of them ill-defined. David Cameron's self-proclaimed mission aims to redistribute power away from the centre to the people. Labour, too, seeks to empower and indeed sought to do so when in power.

In both cases – Labour in the final years of Tony Blair and the Coalition now – attempts at empowerment extend to direct democracy. "Let the people speak!" is part of the new engagement. Again, no leader would dare to argue the opposite.

As a result, some people are speaking out by signing petitions, an activity endorsed with great initial enthusiasm by their rulers. At first, the positive excitement in government circles was unbounded.

Politicians genuinely do want to make new connections with an increasingly alienated electorate.

However, within 10 minutes, the enthusiasm for petitions within government disappeared and was replaced by another familiar emotion in politics: panic.

It is not much of an exaggeration to suggest that Number Ten is close to panic over next week's debate on Europe. The debate in relation to a referendum has arisen because a Commons' backbench committee cited the number of petitions on the issue. The envisaged referendum would put forward several options, including withdrawal from the EU and a partial exit that recognised a trading relationship.

Number Ten's first instinct was to impose a three-line whip against the proposal, but even MPs highly supportive of Cameron tell me that whipping against a motion triggered by petitions goes against the whole spirit of letting the people speak.

Whatever the government decides to do, there will be no referendum in this parliament.

But that is not the point. The Eurosceptics are stirring again and as they do so they highlight several strange, fragile dynamics with the Conservative wing of the Coalition.

The first relates to the relationship between Cameron and the right of his party. Cameron is a Eurosceptic but is not sceptical enough for some of his colleagues.

More widely, the Prime Minister leads a coalition of the radical right, but not one right-wing enough for elements in his party. This leads parts of the BBC to assert that Cameron has a problem with the right because he is a centrist One Nation Tory, a highly agreeable interpretation for the PM.

It is more complicated than that. Rather like John Major in the 1990s, who privatised the railways, kept public spending dangerously low and opted out of the Euro and the Social Chapter, Cameron has instigated unprecedented spending cuts, an overhaul of the NHS and promised referendums on new EU treaties. Evidently both Major in the past and Cameron now support policies identified with the right, but ones that were not then, and are not now, right-wing enough. Again, Major was a Eurosceptic and so is Cameron, but in both cases not enough.

We now have the odd contortion in which Cameron and William Hague are forced to defend Britain's membership of the EU, just as Major had to defend the idea that membership of the Euro could not be ruled out forever, even though he was the one who had ruled it out at Maastricht.

Meanwhile, thoughtful, non-pugilistic Eurosceptics such as George Eustice, who used to be Cameron's press secretary, are also thrown into a degree of panic about what to do in next week's debate. Eustice had been pursuing a more long-term strategy, seeking a renegotiation of Britain's membership rather than full withdrawal.

Cameron could live with that, at least in the short term. But other Eurosceptic MPs have leapt on the new fashion for petitions to step up the pace and intensity of scepticism. He might have no choice but to follow. There is no precise proposal like the single currency in the early 1990s on which the sceptics can focus, but Europe is the great wrecker of parties in British politics.

Even if voters share a party's disdain for Europe, they do not automatically support it and can quickly turn away. Labour pledged to withdraw from the EU in its 1983 manifesto and was slaughtered.

Neil Kinnock's only victory in a national poll came in the 1988 European elections, when the Conservatives fought a populist sceptical campaign. William Hague spent most his time in the 1997 election pledging to save the pound and was slaughtered even more heavily than Labour in 1983.

The Eurosceptics have been proven right on some issues, but their fundamentalism does not chime with voters even at moments of partial vindication. Their reappearance in such numbers now is a reminder that Cameron has not greatly challenged the Eurosceptic right because he partially agrees with them.

The deification of petitions is the cause for the new excitement, not any event in Europe. Sometimes a mountain of signatures can lead to dignified outcomes, such as the debate earlier this week on Hillsborough. But mostly, petitions are a crude device for short-sighted, self-interested groups.

Under the last Labour government, ministers finally dared to propose an experimental road pricing scheme so experimental most drivers would not have noticed. Virtually every driver in the country seemed to sign a Downing Street petition against the move, even though motorists would have benefited in the long term. Number Ten panicked and dropped its tentative experiment. Number Ten is panicking now.

I was struck when Gordon Brown was recorded describing Gillian Duffy as a bigot during the last election that while voters are allowed to abuse politicians, politicians can never abuse voters.

That does not mean politicians must dance to every tune composed by a highly selective group of angry voters often organised by a powerful pressure group. Petitions are a lousy way to make policy.