John Major knows a thing or two about naughty Tory MPs and Europe. So David Cameron would do well to listen to his Chatham House speech today in which he advised the PM to give up on the ‘irreconcilables who are prepared to bring own any government or any Prime Minister in support of their opposition to the European Union’.
He made two particularly strong points:
1. The Prime Minister should start preparing for the negotiation now.
Major doesn’t want the UK to leave the European Union, and neither does Cameron. So the former Tory Prime Minister gave a detailed briefing on how Cameron can avoid this. A referendum would only prevent a gradual drift towards the exit if the renegotiation preceding it is successful, and to ensure success, the PM needs to get planning right away. He said:
‘We need to prepare our own proposals without delay, negotiate courteously and with understanding and the manner in which these negotiations are conducted is vital.’
Major’s argument that Cameron needs to engage with ‘each of our European partners’ in a constructive rather than aggressive fashion won’t be one that frightens the PM: he showed at last week’s EU Budget summit that he’s able to do this. There are, of course, various François Hollande-shaped flies in the ointment, but Cameron showed that he’s not at risk of isolating himself through a poor negotiating demeanour.
There is also political gain in Major’s suggestion that Cameron should appoint a lead negotiator who sits in the Cabinet, whether or not the Lib Dems agree. Major sounds pretty diplomatic on this, saying ‘on a matter of this national importance, the tail must not wag the dog’. But Cameron can also use any reluctance on the part of his Coalition partners to argue that the Lib Dems, by being reluctant to face the facts and prepare for negotiations, are sleepwalking Britain towards isolation in Europe.
2. Cameron can’t – and shouldn’t try to – win over all Tories.
One particularly good line in the speech was ‘rebellion is addictive, and some members may be getting a taste for it’. He can say that again: our analysis of the party after the EU Budget revolt showed a rather large hardcore of Conservative MPs who have rebelled in all three major revolts on a referendum, Lords reform and the EU budget. Major added:
‘I learned 20 years ago that the parliamentary party includes irreconcilables who are prepared to bring down any government or any prime minister in support of their opposition to the European Union.’
But who are these irreconcilables? There are some names that trip off the tongue very easily indeed. But not everyone on our hardcore list looks beyond rescue, and the same can be said for the web of rebellious MPs stretching across different issues. Perhaps the Prime Minister needs to put his international negotiating skills to good use with those members of his party who are behaving a little like François Hollande.