David Cameron has landed an EU deal – but at a cost to his leadership

As the PM made a Commons statement on his new EU deal I thought of John Major in the mid-Nineties

Any predictions about the outcome of the EU referendum are pointless at this early stage, but already we can make a very clear judgment on one important dimension of this whole saga: David Cameron‘s management of the Conservative Party is not going to plan. Cameron offered the referendum in order to keep his party united before the election and because he feared the threat posed by Ukip. From his perspective, the decision made sense then, with polls suggesting that he would lose the election and with some of his Cabinet colleagues as restive as ever over Europe.

The hellish problem for a leader who offers a referendum is that at some point he has to hold it. That is the tricky part and it is proving much trickier than Cameron had hoped, with at least half his backbenchers likely to support the Out campaign, along with Michael Gove and Boris Johnson – two heavyweight internal opponents. In effect a significant section of Cameron’s parliamentary party is declaring openly that it does not rate his “deal” and is dismissing the Prime Minister’s claim that his negotiation achieves fundamental reform. Such a breach between leader and parliamentary party will never be repaired.

We should not be surprised. Since Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative Party has tormented its leaders over Europe. As Cameron made a Commons statement on his new EU deal, I thought of John Major in the mid 1990s, a leader who was forced to hold a vote of confidence after losing a vote on the Maastricht Treaty and who then stood down as leader while still Prime Minister in order to fight a leadership contest. Now here was Cameron making his statement to near silence on the benches behind him, the leader who once told his party to stop banging on about Europe about to bang on about little else – and banging on in a way that will be opposed by many Tory MPs even though he tried to appease them: what persistent contortions.

Over the weekend, on a BBC programme, I asked a couple of Tory guests, Nick Herbert and Michael Forsyth, when they thought the in/out referendum had become inevitable. Herbert, who supports the In campaign, said that the seeds were sown when Tony Blair refused to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the equivalent to the planned EU constitution. Forsyth, who was a close friend of Margaret Thatcher and an Out supporter, dated the origins to the day when most of the EU signed up to the single currency.

I place the start of the current drama a little earlier, back to the Conservatives’ conference in 1992, a few weeks after the UK had humiliatingly pulled out from the exchange rate mechanism. The gathering was as raucous as Labour conferences from the late 1970s and early 1980s, shouting matches in fringe meetings and sometimes in the hall. The issue of course was Europe. The Conservative Party, so pragmatic and loyal to its leadership, was changing in front of our eyes.

Cameron had a chance to resolve the issue when he was first elected, a point of maximum strength for a leader. Instead “modernisation” of his party took the tamer form of social liberalism and, in particular, support for gay marriage. This was not insignificant, but far less thorny as an issue than Europe, the real cause of anguish in the Conservative Party. Now he hopes for cathartic resolution in the most nightmarish of circumstances, an in/out referendum in government with a party that is still split.

As I have written before, parts of the Conservative Party have become Bennite, followers of Tony Benn – a leading opponent from the left of the UK’s membership of the EU in the 1975 referendum. Like Benn they are gripped by the questions of democratic accountability and the sovereignty of the UK parliament. The Tory Bennites make may powerful points, as did Tony Benn. They were right about the euro when they argued that currency union was impossible without political union. They are right to recognise the central importance of accountability, the seemingly dry theme that connects every drama from the failures of the Mid Staffs hospital to the future of the European Union.

But in relation to the EU there are answers to their fears about democratic connections. The phrase “pooled sovereignty” is not some woolly evasion.

To take one example of many: if we want the rules that govern the free market to be democratically agreed, elected leaders must meet to decide what happens and elected representatives must keep an eye on what non-elected officials do in carrying out the will of the leaders. Outside the EU, UK leaders would be at least as constrained – what David Cameron describes as the “illusion of sovereignty”.

That is a good phrase – as are some of the others Cameron has deployed in recent days. He is in persuasive form. Believing in his position, Cameron is authentically authoritative. That is not the case so far with Boris. Even a showman like him cannot act when in anguish. His Daily Telegraph article was partly an argument to vote Out in order to get a better deal from the EU, what Tony Blair would call a Third Way. Boris is not a one hundred per cent “outer” and will therefore be less formidable than many hope or fear. Charisma is only potent when accompanied by conviction. Boris is not wholly convinced.

He is more or less alone with his anguished Third Way, a route that Cameron confidently mocked and demolished in his statement to MPs. But many Conservative MPs suffer few such doubts and are more than convinced that they are battling for British democracy.

They will remain convinced whatever the outcome of the referendum. Their convictions, and not Boris, are the challenge for Cameron now and for his successor later. Expect many more contortions.

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