William Hague stayed remarkably jovial throughout his two-hour appearance before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee today, chuckling happily away even when he was asked to imagine what he’d do if the European Union had never existed.
But the Foreign Secretary was considerably less revelatory than he was cheery, offering no new details at all on his party’s position on renegotiating Britain’s relationship with the EU or on a subsequent referendum. He told a slightly disappointed-looking John Baron that ‘it’s too early to speak of red lines [for a negotiation]… we don’t publish our red lines: that doesn’t necessarily help bring about a successful negotiation.’ He did tell Rory Stewart that when assessing whether the renegotiated relationship would win support from the British public in the referendum when it did come, the government would ‘be able to say that the European Union in future will be more democratically accountable, that power will be able to flow to nation states… that it is being operated fairly to all concerned, including those outside certain structures such as the eurozone’ and that the negotiation has ‘done what we need to do to allow us to compete’.
What if the British people don’t like the new settlement, though? MPs on the committee were anxious to discover whether the Foreign Office had started any work on the consequences of an ‘Out’ vote in the referendum when it does come. Hague said there wasn’t any such work:
‘The job of the Foreign Office is to work on those priorities I was talking about earlier, the agreed programme of the Coalition government: it has a full programme of work on Europe as my colleagues and officials will attest… that is their job, the judgement about the consequences of leaving, is for political debate in the future at the time of a referendum.’
When pressed on this by Ming Campbell, Hague said:
‘We are not doing a preparatory exercise at the moment.’
You can listen to the exchange here:
Incidentally, Hague would create an EU if one didn’t exist, just not one that looked like the current set up:
‘I wouldn’t create it exactly as it is today because I would want it to look more like the answer I just gave… but I wouldn’t be opposed to the creation of something that allowed European countries to work together.’
John Baron was busy this afternoon: as well as grilling Hague in the committee, he also introduced a ten-minute rule bill which calls for legislation in this parliament for a referendum in the next. Hague told him in the committee that he doubted there would be sufficient support from the other parties in the Commons for this to work, but Baron is worried that voters just won’t believe the pledge from the PM for a vote in the next parliament.
Baron might be upset, but his worries won’t create a gaping split in the Tory party, partly because MPs seem to have forgotten about Europe entirely and are busy getting upset about other issues. And it is in Hague’s interests to remain as vague as possible for as long as he can on the renegotiation details, not just for the reasons he referred to in his evidence, but because once the Tory leadership start sketching out their own specific plans, they’ll find their MPs as keen to talk and argue about Europe as they were before the Big Speech.