Earlier today I tweeted…
“Can anyone identify a single EU power this government has repatriated so far? Taps fingers waiting…”
Needless to say, a good few hours later I am still waiting. And that is partly why Conservative MPs are so annoyed by the government’s stance on the EU Referendum vote. If David Cameron had set out to ratchet up the heat in advance of this debate he couldn’t have done a better job. It is an object lesson in how not to handle his party.
His first mistake was to move the date of the debate. The reason given was to allow him and William Hague to attend. Er, why? It is a backbench, non binding motion. What on earth was there to gain by the PM and Foreign Secretary attending? Answer, nothing. And frankly, I doubt whether that was the real reason anyway. I think it had far more to do with shrinking the amount of time constituents would have available to lobby their MPs on the issue.
The second mistake was to let it be known in advance that the government intended to impose a three line whip. Madness. How to score an own goal in one easy lesson. They should have given an air of total relaxation about the vote.
These two basic errors have ensured that however many MPs vote in favour of David Nuttall’s motion, it will be seen as a massive defeat for the Prime Minister. And he will have deserved it. Did he learn nothing from John Major’s experience? Major tried to pretend he was a Eurosceptic and was found out. Cameron seems to be playing the same tune. It’s all very well blaming it all on the LibDems and saying that he can’t do anything Eurosceptic because the LibDems veto it. Well, Prime Minister, show some balls. Show some leadership, because if you don’t now, in a very short time you will be forced to.
Frankly, the outcome of tomorrow’s vote will be an irrelevant sideshow. As I wrote in my Eastern Daily Press column yesterday…
People on the extremes of the argument think Europe is the most important political issue of our age. I agree, it is important, but YouGov polls never place it in the top ten issues people talk about down the Dog & Duck of an evening. Indeed, on my LBC phone in show it is something I discuss regularly. But unlike education, crime or health, it is not a subject which gets the phone lines jammed.
That may well change. Why? Because I cannot conceive that there won’t be treaty changes to emerge from the Eurozone crisis. And then Cameron will be faced with a choice. Does he the grant the referendum he promised at the last election, or does he duck it and say ‘Ah, this only affects the Eurozone, it has nothing to do with us’. I can’t see that he could really do that and get away with it after telling us constantly how a Eurozone crash would be catastrophic for the British economy. But it’s no doubt what the Euro-quislings who infest the Foreign Office will advise him to do.
Ducking a backbench motion is one thing. Betraying a promise on a referendum in those circumstances would be quite another. And surely the LibDems would then persuade him to have In Out referendum at the same time – isn’t that what they promised in their 2010 manifesto?
Going back to tomorrow’s debate. Unwittingly, the MP who has drafted the motion for debate has given his colleagues a reason for rejecting it, because he thinks there should be three options in any referendum – stay in, get out, or stay in and repatriate powers. What on earth happens if the vote splits evenly? So if I were an MP who was rather afraid of the reaction of his Eurosceptic local party I could easily turn round and explain that I was going to vote against the motion on Monday because it is drafted badly. And it is.
But I’d like to think I’d have the courage of my convictions and vote the right way.
But whatever happens, I’d hope that the Conservative Party has the sense not to return to the bad old days of the 1990s. Louise Mensch calling Eurosceptics “Labour’s little helpers” on Twitter is exactly the sort of thing that isn’t helpful.
Some tough things will be said over the next 48 hours. Tory MPs should think very carefully before they open their mouths slagging off their colleagues. Electorates rarely reward split parties. You’d have thought the Tories might have worked that out by now.
Whatever the result tomorrow, Eurosceptic Tories should be pleased that they have achieved one thing over the last few days. They have put more pressure on David Cameron to do the right thing when a new Treaty change is proposed. That was frankly the best they could ever have voted for.
And if he doesn’t deliver at that point? Well, many will have to ask themselves some very searching questions. And one will be, am I in the right party?