Whether they win or lose tomorrow’s attempt at forcing the referendum on Europe into the heart of the Queen’s Speech, the Conservative dissidents who have engineered what one MP admitted was “constitutional symbolic chaos” believe they have already succeeded in wresting control of the EU debate away from David Cameron.
While the Prime Minister was in Washington taking tea in the Oval Office with President Obama, a series of private meetings were being held in Westminster among Tory Eurosceptics to discuss what happens next. The mood inside some of the rooms is said to have been remarkably upbeat.
The recent interventions by Lord Lawson, Michael Portillo, Phillip Hammond and Chris Grayling have – according to a core of the dissidents – given the party’s anti-EU wing two elements it lacked in previous outings: “intellectual respectability” allied to a recognised “political profitability” in openly challenging the EU merits. Euroscepticism hiding in the shadows of Tory policy appear to be over.
Key members of Mr Cameron’s Cabinet and a troop of ambitious ministers are said to be contemplating cashing in on the “profitability” of questioning remaining inside the EU club, regardless of No 10’s official stance that any debate is premature until the outcome of future negotiations is known. Lord Lawson described such negotiations as “inconsequential”. Backbench rebels want this criticism to become more brutal between now and the next general election.
So why the change? What happened to the discontented “bastards” that undermined the authority of John Major’s administration? What changed is the QED at the end of current Eurosceptic calculations. It simply reads: Ukip. The “profitability” in admitting that the Ukip protest votes is three Tories against one from other parties, is crucial.
Monday’s discussions centred on “the three stages of Ukip success”: box 1, local elections, has already been ticked; box 2, next year’s Europe elections, are already predicted as a given victory for Nigel Farage’s party. All point to increased media coverage for Ukip, integration into the mainstream, and crucially, more money. In conversations with The Independent, numerous Tory MPs agreed the aim of the rebellion was to disarm the idea that only Ukip can take the UK out of the EU. One backbencher said: “If we prove this party is intellectually committed to questioning EU membership – then we show there is little point in voting Ukip.”
Cameron is described by many of his own MPs as unable to form a strategy that would force Labour and the Liberal Democrats to vote against a referendum. “That would be toxic for Miliband and Clegg. So how are we trying to make this happen? We aren’t. Cameron has no endgame. It’s down to us,” said one.
Although nothing has been formally written down, the agreed aim of the 2013 rebellion is to force the referendum into the next Tory manifesto. One rebel said: “Cameron says he fears Europe being the dominant political issue. It’s too late. It already is.”