Sir David Davis and Backbenchers add to Cameron EU woe


As reported in the Hull Daily Mail:

For the Conservative Party, Europe is a bit like irritable bowel syndrome: it has no known cause or cure but causes periodic pain, political fatigue and is not very helpful when it comes to winning elections.

The party first showed symptoms 40 years ago, shortly after the UK joined the then European Economic Community on New Year’s Day 1973. There was little fanfare, particularly in the Tory ranks.

Nor did the present Government celebrate the recent 40th anniversary of that event in any way; instead, the Prime Minister promised a referendum to settle once and for all whether the UK ought to be in or out of the European family.

It was an attempt by David Cameron to relieve the Europhobic symptoms that had dogged the first half of his term as PM. Although initial signs were good, the treatment clearly has not worked.

 People continued to vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) and, over the past week, Tory big beasts – past and present – have lined up to say they would vote to withdraw from the EU.

It came to a head last night when dozens of Tory MPs – including Haltemprice and Howden MP David Davis and Brigg and Goole MP Andrew Percy – backed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech expressing “regret” that it had not included legislation paving the way for David Cameron’s promised 2017 referendum.

Although symbolic, it was another embarrassment for a Prime Minister who has not exactly enjoyed a lot of discipline on his back benches.

But thinking long-term, Mr Davis has another prescription.

“First we should have a mandate referendum, which will get people to agree to what we’ll try to negotiate back from the EU,” he says.

“The PM then goes off to Brussels clutching that, hopefully with 70 per cent backing; he comes back with a solution, then that’s put to people in a second in/out referendum. That’s the basic idea.”

Labour’s position is not necessarily hostile to a referendum at some future date, but party leader Ed Miliband does not believe it is a priority.

“I have some sympathy that a generation of people have never had the opportunity to vote on European issues,” says Hull East MP and Labour whip Karl Turner, “but I do not think that now is the time.” He says: “David Davis’s position on Europe is well-documented and I am sure some of his constituents will share his concerns. But Europe is not the number one concern for mine.”

That might be true in Hull East but most opinion polls show a sizeable number of Britons would at least think about voting “yes” to withdrawal, given the opportunity. Conservative voters such as those in Mr Davis’s constituency are among the most hostile to Europe’s charms.

But even then, analysis by the pollster YouGov shows that if those voters were given a “clear lead” from the top of their party – ie David Cameron saying, “I’ve got a good deal and we should stay in the club” – then they would follow suit.

Mr Turner also makes the point that having two referendums would not only be “very expensive” but also “very confusing”.

Not so, says Mr Davis: “It’s the quintessence of simplicity, given the mess we’re in over the EU.

“We’ve simply got to cut through this Gordian Knot (an intractable problem), and this is the best way to do it.”

The Prime Minister, of course, does not want to look scared of noisy backbenchers such as Mr Davis or of Ukip’s apparently unstoppable rise.

But that didn’t stop him caving in (partially) on Tuesday when he published a draft referendum Bill he hopes a backbench Conservative MP will take up following a ballot for Private Members’ Bills due today.

But it was not enough to appease last night’s rebels, and although the resulting vote failed due to Labour and Liberal Democrat opposition, the pressure isn’t about to let up.

So will the PM relent further? “He’s been for turning on other things, hasn’t he?” responds Mr Davis, although he concedes that politically “it’s a bit of a minefield”, whatever the Prime Minister decides to do.

Mr Davis says: “It’s unlikely to be solved by a conventional route. It may even end up with a Private Member’s Bill, which would call everyone’s bluff. But if he doesn’t do anything, backbenchers might force his hand.”

There is also the small matter of elections to the European Parliament next summer. Ukip might win (at least in England) and at that point – just a year out from the 2015 general election – the Conservatives’ irritable bowel syndrome might become even more uncomfortable.