John Rentoul: The PM surfs the euro-breakers

In quashing referendum hopes, David Cameron flexes the political muscle that looks good on television

Share
Related Topics

Some Conservative MPs are furious. Some are puzzled. Almost none seems to understand what is going on. In the Commons last week I was told that David Cameron had "betrayed" them by ordering them to vote against a referendum on Europe. (Their manifesto, they complain, promised to "negotiate... to return powers" from Brussels.) Or that the Prime Minister had "mishandled" the vote badly. Betrayed? Mishandled? They are the ones who are betraying him, who could have "handled" their madness in no other way. What is more, Cameron is the one who will emerge victorious and strengthened.

The madness has spread to some of my colleagues in the reporting business. No doubt the air will be thick this weekend with BBC journalists interviewing each other and asking how much the Prime Minister's authority is weakened by this rebellion. Not at all, is the answer, although that would fail to make an interesting enough "two-way" for the bulletins.

You can see why some people are excited. For a large minority of Conservative MPs, it is a psychopathology familiar to those of us who were around in mid 1990s. At that time, Iain Duncan Smith was someone I would be pleased to see in or around the Members' Lobby because, as a centrist among Eurosceptics, he would have the best intelligence on the next vote. In those days, the hard- core sceptics, who hated the Maastricht Treaty even with an opt-out for Britain from the single currency, were people such as Teresa Gorman, Tony Marlow and Bill Cash, who showed their grasp of the nuances of democracy by seeing nothing remotely foolish about the prospect of John Redwood as prime minister.

Their successors today – MPs such as Douglas Carswell, Peter Bone and, oh yes, Bill Cash – have a similar understanding of how to win elections, and a similar interest in our relationship with the European Union to the exclusion of all else. For them, tomorrow's vote is the first step towards withdrawal from the EU (in Carswell and Bone's case) or renegotiation of our terms of membership (in Cash's), and nothing else matters.

I do not criticise them for their objectives. There is a stronger case for leaving the EU than is considered acceptable to express in polite society, to which I shall come in a moment. But the strategy is lamentable. Pushing for a vote in the Commons that they are certain to lose is not a clever way to advance the cause. Appearing to replicate the introspective obsession of the Gorman-Marlow era is not an obvious way to persuade people that they are actually inhabitants of this planet whose intentions are friendly.

For some of the single-issue MPs who have pushed for tomorrow's vote, the existence of a wider Conservative Party is a mystery, let alone that of their coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats. As for the idea of working with the Labour Party, they look at you as if the translator has just lost the Finnish commissioner. You might have thought that, if public opinion is becoming more Eurosceptic (and I am coming to that, I promise), they should try to persuade the Labour leadership to seek opportunist advantage, in the way that John Smith harassed John Major over the Maastricht Treaty. And then to wait, wait and wait again.

Because now is not the time. The unworldly sceptics think that, because the eurozone crisis has proved them right, which it has, a grateful nation will turn to them to lead it out of slavery. On the contrary, being right about locking European currencies together does them no good at all. People can see that the euro crisis has little to do with the case for or against Britain's membership of the EU, and that preparing for a referendum, by adding to uncertainty, might make the economic crisis in our main export market worse.

If Britain is going to reconsider its membership of the EU, that is something that will happen over decades. It would require the Labour Party to split again on the question – at the moment the party is fairly united on Europe – and it would require the British to decide that free movement of labour is not in their interest, which would be a big deal.

That said, the hold of the European ideal over the liberal imagination in Britain has been broken. For a long time, that Britain should eventually adopt the euro was an article of faith on the liberal left. We couldn't remember why – the economic case as a bulwark against inflation had been refuted in 1992 – but the inertia was strong. The same applied to immigration and the influx of Poles after EU enlargement in 2004; that mostly reflected and reinforced economic success, but it is no longer socially disabling to suggest that it was also bad for some poorer Britons, or that it drew attention, at least, to the persistence of welfare dependency.

At the same time, it is possible now to suggest that the Human Rights Act is not the statutory equivalent of the Promised Land, and even Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, said last week that decisions of the European Court of Human Rights might not be as binding as we thought they were.

That is a tide turning, that is. But it will take a long time, and it will not make the slightest difference to the vote tomorrow. My guess is that the rebellion will be smaller than most of the estimates.

MPs who want to be ministers have got the message of the mini-reshuffle that followed Liam Fox's departure: be (a) loyal and (b) close to George Osborne. Many of them are frustrated, and many of them want to be seen as Eurosceptic in the re-selection battles that will follow the boundary changes. But ambition comes first, so they will knuckle under.

In any case, it would be disastrous for Cameron to wobble now. He will win the vote, assert his authority over his party and appear strong on the television news. Not for the first time, he understands politics better than his opponents do.

twitter.com/JohnRentoul; independent.co.uk/jrentoul

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

£20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

£24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Tony Abbott: A man most Australian women would like to pat on the back...iron in hand

Caroline Garnar
Australian rapper Iggy Azalea performs in California  

Hip hop is both racial and political, and for Iggy Azalea to suggest otherwise is insulting

Yomi Adegoke
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there