Robert Conquest’s Third Law is one of my favourites. It holds that the simplest way to explain the behaviour of any bureaucratic organisation is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies. That is, indeed, the only way in which we can make sense of the 95 Conservative MPs who have signed a letter to their own Prime Minister asking him to do the impossible, with the implication that he is a chump and soft touch if he fails.
It is as if Peter Mandelson drafted the letter, in which the MPs pledge their undying loyalty to David Cameron if he should give them (a) the Moon on a stick, (b) a unicorn each, and (c) a parliamentary “veto over current and future EU laws”. William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, went a slightly paler shade of deathly blue and murmured something about having to be realistic. After that, the Prime Minister hoped it would all go away. It is only a letter, after all. That is the constitutional equivalent of commenting below the line on internet articles: it is not as if it actually affects anything. It is not like an official report of the European Scrutiny Committee (ESC), the committee of the House of Commons that examines EU law.
Oh. The letter refers to the report by the ESC published last month, in which it proposes that “there should be a mechanism whereby the House of Commons can decide that a particular legislative proposal should not apply to the UK”. Again, Conquest’s Third Law is the only plausible explanation. We can see why the Labour MPs on the committee, five of whom were present when it approved the report, might wave it though. They want to cause as much trouble as possible to the Prime Minister. That is part of their job. And we can see why the two Liberal Democrats on the committee might not have kicked up a fuss, as they weren’t at the meeting. But what about the Conservative members? Were they the puppets of a Mandelsonian controlling intelligence, pressing Cameron to deliver what they know perfectly well he cannot?
The idea that the member states of the EU could opt in and out of EU law as their parliaments see fit lacks, as the Foreign Secretary might put it, a firm anchor in the reality-based community. When some EU laws are first drawn up, they can be vetoed by the government of any member state. But once they are law they stay law, unless all 28 governments agree otherwise. What is more, much EU law is to do with the single market, in which case it is passed by majority voting, and so no single country has a veto, under the terms of the Single European Act, a treaty signed by Margaret Thatcher.
What the committee and the 95 Tory MPs propose is not just unrealistic, it is unrealism on stilts, with bells on. There is no prospect that any other country would agree to it, let alone all 27 of them, either now or after the election, assuming Cameron were to win and seek to change the EU and put those changes to a referendum.
So what is going on? Well, Lord Mandelson blurted out the cunning plan in the Upper House on Friday. He said that the Conservative Private Member’s Bill to set the date for the referendum “is stage one in raising impossible demands of the EU in order to create a pretext for leaving it”. That is what the cabal of Cameron’s enemies are up to. They want to paint the Conservative Party as in the grip of ideologues: Tory Trotskyists pushing their transitional demands. Just as Labour’s Marxist infiltrators long ago pushed for higher public spending to expose the contradictions of capitalism, Bernard Jenkin’s 95 fellow travellers seem to be asking for something reasonable (a national veto) in order to achieve what they really want (to leave the EU).
The reason I can tell that this is a Mandelsonian plot is that there are nowhere near as many as 95 Tory MPs who secretly want to leave the EU. They are Eurosceptics, certainly, but so are most normal people. “Eurosceptic” was a term coined to refer to people who did not want Britain to adopt the euro, and how right they were. It did not mean, primarily, those who wanted Britain out of the EU altogether. That confusion is a calumny of the Mandelsonites, ably assisted by the dunderheadedness of the Tories themselves. Why, even Bill Cash, chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee and arch-super-ultra-sceptic, does not want to leave the EU.
Most of the 95 are aligned with the majority of public opinion: they want the EU to change but they want to stay in it. It is a triumph of Cameron’s enemies that they look as if they want out.