David Cameron must flush out the Brexit diehard Tories

时间:2019-11-16 责任编辑:干密屎 来源:澳门银河官网网址 点击:269 次

Just as were starting to wonder how much longer David Cameron’s post-election honeymoon would last, it ended. The prime minister’s plan to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership and then seek public approval for the deal was bound to cause division. Downing Street had hoped the facade of unity might hold for longer than a month.

The immediate cause of unrest was a comment by Cameron to the effect that, come the referendum, ministers would be expected to. This upset hardline Eurosceptics because it sounded as if Cameron was getting ready to whip his cabinet into a pro-EU stance, forcing dissenters to resign. Within 24 hours Cameron had executed a U-shaped “clarification”. What he meant, apparently, was that the strictures of collective cabinet responsibility would apply during the negotiations. Only after the deal is done would a decision be taken on how vigorously ministers would be expected to endorse it.

But having said he intended to get something special, Cameron can hardly admit to bringing home anything less. So it is a safe assumption that even a watery gloss on existing EU membership will be presented as a triumph. Equally certain is the eventual declaration by some Tory MPs that the prime minister has let them down, leaving a call for exit as their only conscionable option.

The problem for Downing Street is knowing how many of these implacable Brexiters there really are in parliament. Estimates range from 20 to 100. The promise of renegotiation was an ingenious device for masking irreconcilable positions, but it only works for as long as the outcome is hypothetical. As the debate turns more technical over the coming months, Cameron should begin to discern a line between those MPs who are biddable with concessions from Brussels and those who are only pretending.

Will a protocol exempting the UK from the principle of “ever-closer union” suffice? What about limitations on EU migrants’ welfare entitlements? Can that apply only to unemployment benefits (which is easy) or does it have to include in-work benefits such as tax credits (which is much trickier)? How about new rules to make sure non-eurozone countries aren’t sidelined in summits (do-able), or does it have to be a more muscular restoration of surrendered national vetoes (practically impossible)? A commitment to future British exceptions when the next EU treaty comes along (plausible) or a special treaty to accommodate Cameron’s demands in time for the referendum (no chance)? Will a selection from the buffet sate sceptical appetites, or must it be the full menu gourmand?

Downing Street won’t be pinned down on official priorities, citing the need to keep negotiating cards close to the prime ministerial chest. Backbench maximalists say they want the whole feast and tighter border controls for pudding but that is because what they really want is to leave the EU, and think setting impossible conditions for staying will cast Brussels as the enemy of compromise, thereby winning public support for their cause.

Then there are the middle-order sceptics – the majority of Tory MPs who are not card-carrying Europhiles, who do not rule out staying in the EU, profess commitment to Cameron’s plan, but who won’t be explicit about the kind of deal they could get behind. Their caginess owes more to career calculation than nuanced evaluation of what is feasible within the constraints of continental diplomacy, or essential to protect UK economic interests. They did not get selected as parliamentary candidates without sounding fiercely Eurosceptic in hustings, but nor do they wake up every morning wondering how to get Britain out of .

What they need is some symbolic trophy concession to display in the local Conservative association, ideally accompanied by enthusiastic reviews in the Daily Telegraph, which would amount to permission to back the government on referendum day. What that trophy might look like, they do not know. Their more fanatical colleagues will do everything to raise expectations beyond attainability.

A further complication is Cameron’s promise to stand down before the next election. If the renegotiation starts to look unfruitful, ambitious MPs will be reluctant to pretend otherwise just out of loyalty to a lame duck leader. So the prime minister needs an early win in Brussels and he needs his MPs to call it that. He needs to flush out the disingenuous, wait-and-see faction that is really a fifth column of outers, distinguishing between those who sincerely want him to succeed and those who secretly will him to fail – some of whom may be sitting in his cabinet.

The prime minister’s best asset in this battle is public opinion. There is not much love for the EU in Britain, but ardent desire to quit at any costs is a fringe position. A referendum on existing membership terms could be won by the yes camp if the alternative looks like a blind leap into economic uncertainty. A yes vote on terms that underline the UK’s special status as the leading non-eurozone member, exempt from the federalising logic of the single currency, could be won comfortably, especially if the no proposition becomes an ideological crusade or a Ukippish culture war against all things foreign. Many in the better-off-out camp see that risk, which is why they are determined that the campaign to leave be led by someone less polarising than Nigel Farage.

Eurosceptic grapes are already souring on the vine. When the bill facilitating a referendum was read in parliament, backbench Conservatives aired pre-emptive complaints about a government con. Funding arrangements for the campaign and refusal to enforce “purdah” – suspensions of ministerial activity in the run-up to the ballot – are cited as tricks to boost a yes vote.

There is a Tory faction that will cast Cameron as the author of a Europhile stitch-up, regardless of what he negotiates in Brussels. It is not the terms of the deal that will decide the size of that rebellion but the leader’s authority, which bleeds away every time he retreats from confrontation.

The prime minister faces a choice. He can grow as a national figure, making the case for Britain in Europe, or he can shrink into the captivity of a ridiculous pretence that his party is united. It is obvious which path his enemies want him to choose.