From The Lobby 53

From The Lobby 53

Assistant comment editor for the Telegraph Asa Bennett provides us with a close analysis of the EU referendum, currently a hot topic in Parliament

David Cameron started out as Conservative leader not wanting to talk about the European Union, chiding his party for “banging on about Europe”. But in 2013, as the eurozone crisis raged, Prime Minister Cameron took the plunge by pledging to negotiate a “new settlement for Britain”, which he promised to put to the British public to vote on by the end of 2017. “I have no illusions about the scale of the task ahead,” he insisted. The Conservatives’ shock election victory in May gave him a fresh mandate for this, as EU leaders realised he – and his list of demands – weren’t going away soon.

Success rests on the Prime Minister’s ability to manage expectations for two audiences: fellow EU leaders and his Conservative colleagues at home. Cameron wants to secure changes that won’t be swiftly vetoed by other European states, but he wants them to think that failing to concede enough will force him – with a show of reluctance – to advocate Britain’s exit from the European Union. Conservative MPs hope for substantive changes, while some Eurosceptic Tories – and Nigel Farage – have already written off his renegotiation as a sham. Most Conservative MPs admit they want to see what he comes back with, but some fear they’ll be set for disappointment. “I can’t help thinking he has set the bar low, so that he can’t fail to go over it,” one backbencher muttered to me recently.

Success rests on the Prime Minister's ability to manage expectations for two audiences: fellow EU leaders and his Conservative colleagues at home.

So what exactly is he asking for? In a letter to European Commission President Donald Tusk, he laid our four objectives: Protecting Britain’s access to the Single Market, cutting red tape and ensuring competitiveness is ‘written into Europe’s DNA’, ending abuse of ‘freedom of movement’ by EU migrants, and exempting Britain from ‘ever closer union’. Some of the goals – like his competitiveness drive – are somewhat nebulous, so he can declare victory by listing any regulations set to be axed for European businesses. However, Cameron is likely to stay away from pursuing a full opt out for Britain from EU employment laws so he can keep the trade unions and Jeremy Corbyn in the Yes camp for the referendum campaign. The Labour leader has previously sounded less than enthusiastic about the EU, but was forced to confirm he would campaign to stay in after pressure from figures such as Chuka Umunna, the former shadow business secretary.

Other parts of Cameron’s renegotiation are more difficult, like his quest for ‘binding principles’ to ensure the 19 Member States in the eurozone can’t gang up on non-euro nations like Britain by bringing in rules that would unfairly hurt them, such as financial regulation for the City of London. However, these new rules would need to be written into the EU’s fundamental treaties, a process that will not be completed before Britain votes on membership by the end of next year. The idea has been floated of EU leaders issuing an undertaking to make the necessary changes after the referendum, but some Eurosceptics warn that it would be an ‘empty promise’.

Ministers have been talking up the significance of exempting Britain from the EU’s mantra of ‘ever closer union’, arguing it has been used to justify policies that have trampled over Westminster’s supremacy. EU leaders are quite likely to compromise on this, partly as they see those three words as symbolic rather than an issue of substance. But some Conservative Eurosceptics are likely to be left underwhelmed as they have been demanding much more, namely the right for Parliament to get a veto over all edicts from Brussels – something ministers feel is practically impossible without leaving the EU.

Wriggling out of an ‘ever closer union’ may not do much to get voters marching out to the polling booths to back Cameron’s renegotiated terms of membership, but what he brings back to answer their concerns about immigration may change that. However, this looks to be the hardest area of renegotiation to satisfy public expectations, as, despite hints from ministers such as Theresa May, he is not known to be seeking an ‘emergency brake’ on the number of EU nationals coming to Britain. Instead, the Prime Minister is focused on getting agreement over his plan to force EU nationals to work for four years before they can claim benefits in Britain, but civil servants have already warned that a deal may only be possible if the limit is lowered to just a few months.

The EU referendum campaign is roaring into life, with both sides making their case.

The timing of the referendum is far from certain, with David Cameron and George Osborne favouring next June for an early vote. This has already alarmed Conservative MPs, who fear that Tory high command want to rush to thrash out a deal, without taking the time to demand truly major changes from EU leaders. Some Out campaigners also feel a rushed vote gives them less time to develop their arguments. The Government’s referendum bill has yet to be made law, with the Lords recently sending it back to the Commons by backing an amendment to let 16- and 17-year-olds vote in it. MPs are threatening to strike this proposal down, but any legislative ping-pong between both Houses risks pushing back the potential referendum. Ministers aren’t too keen to concede on this, given that it could take up to a year to ensure the extra 1.5 million young people are registered in time for the referendum.

David Cameron has only just begun the detailed stage of his renegotiation, but this hasn’t stopped the In and Out sides launching their campaigns. Like last year’s Scottish referendum, both sides are keen to show they have businesses on their side. Britain Stronger in Europe is chaired by former M&S chairman Stuart Rose and counts the likes of Innocent co-founder Richard Reed and Apprentice star Karren Brady as supporters, while Vote Leave boasts the backing of JML chairman John Mills, Patisserie Valerie chief Luke Johnson and Reebok founder Joe Foster.

Recent research from IPSE shows that the majority of independent professionals (61%) would vote to stay in the EU if a referendum were held tomorrow, but many businesses remain on the fence, with the Institute of Directors saying over 60% of its members are waiting to see what reform Britain secures in its renegotiation. The Confederation of British Industry, by contrast, has incurred the wrath of Out campaigners as it has previously made markedly Europhile noises, recently claiming that EU membership was worth £3,000 to every UK household. Vote Leave activists infiltrated the CBI’s latest conference and heckled Cameron during his keynote speech, waving banners declaring “CBI – Voice of Brussels”. Dominic Cummings, its campaign director, scoffed at accusations that such tactics were nasty, saying: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.” Out campaigners have tried to deter businesses from speaking out in defence of the EU, writing to firms to warn that they risk beaching the Companies Act if they give money to the In campaign. Businesses can expect to be courted for their support in this referendum campaign, like last year in Scotland, but also to be accosted by the other side if they publicly declare.

The EU referendum campaign is roaring into life, with both sides making their case before David Cameron has even come back with a renegotiated package to sell to the British people. As he tries to secure an agreement abroad while keeping his MPs on side, the Prime Minister can expect to spend a good few years “banging on about Europe”.


Article by Asa Bennett