Eurosceptic Tory MPs secretly hope that Jean-Claude Juncker gets the top job in Brussels because they believe it would boost the prospects of the British public voting to quit the European Union.
In public, the sceptics are backing David Cameron’s last-ditch attempt to stop the former prime minister of Luxembourg being appointed European Commission president at a summit of EU leaders on Friday. But in private, Tory MPs who want Britain to leave the EU predict that the veteran federalist would give Mr Cameron few concessions as he tries to win a new deal for the UK ahead of the 2017 in/out referendum he has promised.
Douglas Carswell, the MP for Clacton who is a member of the Better Off Out campaign, tweeted: “Please let it be Juncker. Please. Pretty please. C’mon Angela” – a reference to the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is now backing Mr Juncker’s appointment despite her initial doubts.
Mr Carswell told The Independent that some of his tweets were “tongue in cheek” but added: “Plenty of truth is said in jest.”
He praised Mr Cameron for opposing Mr Juncker but made clear that he hoped for a blacklash if EU leaders gave him the job. He said: “If your criticism is that the European establishment is out of touch and doesn’t recognise legitimate popular concerns … If they behave in a way that demonstrates that point more effectively than a Eurosceptic Tory backbencher ever could, then [that’s a] nice one.”
Lord Leach, the Tory peer who chairs the Open Europe think tank, which supports reform but not withdrawal, said: “Mr Juncker’s appointment would be a bitter blow to the pro-European cause, bolstering the Outists’ line that the EU is unreformable.”
A senior Tory MP and prominent Eurosceptic said: “It’s a win-win for us. If the PM stops Juncker, that’s fine. If he doesn’t, it’s great for us because it will show the public that the EU is incapable of change and they will vote to come out.”
A moderate Tory MP who wants Britain to remain in the EU said: “The Europhobes are desperate for Juncker to get it. They think he would be the best possible recruiting sergeant for an Out vote.”
Mr Juncker predicted that he would land the job and had a dig at Mr Cameron. He said in Berlin: “I am not designated EC president yet. If common sense prevails this will happen at the end of the week – but it seems that common sense is very unequally distributed, so one will have to wait.”
With Mr Cameron facing virtual isolation at the summit, Tory MPs are stepping up their pressure on him to declare that he is ready to recommend in the referendum that Britain leaves the EU.
Mr Cameron has always said he intends to campaign for an “in” vote if the new terms of membership he negotiates are good enough. But Downing Street is now signalling for the first time that he might urge an “out” vote. It said EU leaders should consider that decisions taken in the next few years would “affect British voters’ views of the EU, and is likely to affect the way they vote in any such referendum”.