Editorial: Lord Lawson's remarks herald the return of the Tories' obsession with Europe

The former Chancellor has branded any repatriation of powers "inconsequential"
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Were it another Conservative grandee, even another former Chancellor, who was so publicly setting out his intention to vote for Britain to leave the EU, then the declaration might be a rather less incendiary one.

Lord Lawson, however, is both a genuine political heavyweight and one whose history on Europe – voting “in” in 1975 and backing the Exchange Rate Mechanism a decade later – is a far cry from the dyed-in-the-wool scepticism of the usual suspects. Finally, there is his status within his party to consider: as the budgetary plumber of high Thatcherism, Lord Lawson has huge influence, particularly over the current crop of dissatisfied coalitionists.

What, though, of the substance of his claims? In fact, for all the recourse to Keynes’ overworked (if apocryphal) “when the facts change, I change my mind”, the former Chancellor’s arguments are that familiar mix of anachronism and wishful thinking which so often characterises the arguments of those who would have Britain pull up the political drawbridge.

That is not to say that Europe does not need reform. From the yawning fiscal flaws exposed by the euro crisis, to the woeful inefficiencies of many EU institutions, to the widening disconnect between votes and power, the European project is far from completed. As Lord Lawson rightly points out, bank regulation is an especially vexed question for Britain.

But to conclude that “the case for exit is clear” is simplistic to the point of absurdity; and the claim that the “modest” benefits of the single market could easily be replaced is the  finger-in-the-air economics of the soap-box rabble-rouser, not a reasoned basis from which to reshape our political and economic future.

It is easy to paint a Brussels-free Britain as a picture of Anglo-Saxon enterprise, as a global super-trader no longer bound by red tape and the whims of bureaucrats. But Europe accounts for perhaps three million British jobs, nearly 60 per cent of exports and more than half of imports. The notion that withdrawal would make little difference flies in the face of logic.

Meanwhile, much of the “red tape” would remain; and the myriad unquantifiable benefits – from trade deals to geopolitical heft to shared security – would be lost. A Britain outside the EU would not be liberated; it would be reduced. If the substance of Lord Lawson’s remarks is questionable, the politics are potentially catastrophic – for the Tories in particular. David Cameron was already in a bind over Europe. To head off sceptic rumblings from his back benches, he promised not only to renegotiate Britain’s position, but to hold an in/out referendum after the next election. Although the scheme bought him barely a moment’s respite from his mutinous right wing, it at least pushed the decision to  beyond 2015.

Now, though, Lord Lawson has openly  pooh-poohed the strategy, branding any changes in the rules that Mr Cameron might secure as “inconsequential”. Even worse, the devastating dismissal came just days after the local elections. Never mind that Ukip’s mini-boom is more about immigration and the protest vote than the EU; for Eurosceptics with an axe to grind, such distinctions matter little.

There are plenty of them. Perhaps a third of Tory MPs want out of Europe, another third are undecided. The Prime Minister himself hopes to have us stay, albeit on tweaked terms. But his room to manoeuvre is shrinking. In Europe, he now talks of “reform” rather than “renegotiation”, but EU policymakers grow warier nonetheless and are less inclined to compromise.

Mr Cameron is attempting to ride two horses. Always a difficult trick to pull off, Lord Lawson has made it inestimably harder. The fractious Tories are the losers. Worse, so is Britain.