Steve Richards: Cameron's sabre-rattling over the EU treaty will come to nothing if Brown has his way

Share

In the current febrile state of British politics, an issue that seems to boost a leader can suddenly become the source of his gloom. Senior Labour figures are still getting over their dance with an early election, the joyful jigs turning swiftly into a paralysing hangover. Now some Conservatives take to the dancefloor with an upbeat verve as Europe becomes a melodious issue for them once more.

This is the policy area that gets a lot of them going and, as a happy coincidence, aligns their party with the most powerful newspapers in the land. As an even more gratifying bonus, the Conservatives can make their case on the basis of 'trust' – the great simplistic cliché of our times. With heads held high, they claim that Labour promised a referendum on the EU constitution and is therefore obliged to offer one now.

In the same way that, for a time, the early election story terrified the Conservatives, the related issues of Europe and the referendum privately worries senior ministers. As one of them put it to me in relation to the persistent prominence of the referendum story: "I suppose it could be even worse but I assumed that, after we negotiated all the opt-outs last summer, we would be in a much better position over this."

The Government led by Gordon Brown never knowingly under- worries. It was the same under Tony Blair. "Oh my God, what have we done wrong now and how do we get out of the mess?" has tended to be the mood in Downing Street since 1997, whether Labour was 20 points ahead in the polls or well behind. But, as the Tories worried needlessly about the election story, Labour has cause to be more bullish about Europe. At the same time, it is the Tories who should be worried about the direction in which the debate on Europe is heading.

There are obvious tactical reasons why Mr Cameron faces difficulties. Already, a significant number of Conservative MPs are calling for a pledge to hold a referendum on the revised treaty at the next election, even if the agreement has been ratified across Europe. No wonder Mr Cameron and William Hague are evasive on this convoluted demand. Even if Britain wanted to cling on as a member of the EU, in such circumstances the rest of Europe would have every right to tell us to leave (presumably a new Conservative government would campaign for a 'no' vote against a ratified treaty, threatening to cause chaos).

Already, other EU members despair of Britain's adolescent behaviour, its semi-detached posturing. Such a proposal from the Conservatives in a 2009 election would be the final straw. Mr Cameron probably recognises that this would be a move too far but, if he accepts the treaty after ratification, he risks alienating that section of the party which regards Europe as the greatest menace of the lot.

The Conservatives also have a broader problem. Of all the recent changes in Europe, this is the one they should be supporting. The treaty contains relatively minor reforms made necessary as a result of enlargement. Here is Margaret Thatcher in her famous Bruges speech, the address that heightened the Euro-sceptic fervour in her party. It was the shrill tone that roused the passions of her ardent followers, rather than much of the substance. Her section on the wider Europe was modest and beyond dispute. "We must never forget that, east of the Iron Curtain, peoples who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots," she said.

Now the peoples have got their freedom and identity as members of the EU. Lady Thatcher and other Tory MPs argued during the debates over Maastricht in the 1990s that the focus should be on enlargement and not a Franco-German project that sought sweeping integration. They have got their way, as they did over Britain's refusal to join the euro. Enlargement makes a Franco-German conspiracy impossible. The Tory Euro-sceptics should be raising a glass over this latest treaty, rather than spitting blood once more.

They should then be raising another glass to toast the fact that it is the British parliament that will be deciding whether to ratify the treaty. Here again is Margaret Thatcher in her also famous final statement to the Commons as Prime Minister, after the Rome summit in the autumn of 1991. When asked to support more powers for the European parliament, the EC and the Council of Ministers she shrieked: "No, no, no". Instead, she wanted power to reside in the British parliament.

At a time when it is fashionable in all the main parties to argue that parliament should matter more, this is hardly the moment to undermine its effectiveness by calling a referendum on a treaty of less significance compared with several others passed in recent years.

Beyond some parts of the media, I detect no great enthusiasm for a referendum, no overwhelming desire among voters to debate whether Britain's opt-in over crime policy is less of an opt-out than it seems. The great propagandists at the mighty Euro-sceptic newspapers have failed to generate much excitement so far and their failure is not down to a lack of effort. I never underestimate the power of British newspapers but I sense it was significant that The Sun's week-long campaign during the Labour Party conference, calling for a referendum, made the newspaper look silly rather than the fearful ministers who were terrified of its possible impact.

Yesterday's exchanges in the Commons showed how Mr Brown plans to move on from the current stifling debate. On one level, his statement was another depressing example of a prime ministerial speech with one essential message: "Europe is awful but, don't worry, we don't have to play along with it". Mr Brown highlighted the vetoes, the safeguards, the opt-outs and the opt-ins as if he was dealing with the equivalent of the plague. More hopefully, he looked beyond the treaty to a fresh agenda.

In this he was astute. The agenda outlined for the next decade by Mr Brown – in relation to making Europe more competitive, taking action on the environment and global poverty – is much less likely to be contaminated by Euro-madness and could even command a degree of cross-party support.

Mr Brown will be able to navigate his way through this treaty. I recall the frenzy among some Conservatives in the build-up to the Amsterdam Treaty. It was so intense that a pathetic John Major pleaded with them during the 1997 election not to "tie my hands" in advance of the summit. Consequently, Tony Blair signed up to Amsterdam and the fuss soon subsided. The fuss will subside over this treaty by the time of the election. Yet it will not have done so in the minds of some Tory MPs. That is why Mr Cameron should be worried as he dances in apparent joyful harmony with voters and Rupert Murdoch.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Maths Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Maths Teacher - Saffro...

Chemistry Teacher - Top School in Malaysia - January Start

£18000 - £20400 per annum + Accommodation, Flights, Medical Cover: Randstad Ed...

Geography Teacher

£21000 - £35000 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Geography Teacher - ...

Secondary Humanities, Business and Economics, Jan 15, Malaysia

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Position: Secondary Humanities, Business...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Being catcalled, groped and masturbated at is a common part of the female experience

Bryony Beynon
A general view at the 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' evolving art installation at the Tower of London  

London's sea of poppies is a beautiful monument to the fallen of World War I

Ken Eggleston
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain