Justice and Home Affairs ministers have spent a muggy afternoon in the Commons slogging through several hours of tetchy questions from backbenchers about the government’s plan to opt out of European Union justice and home affairs measures, before opting back in to the ones the government has decided it likes. It’s at times like this that anyone other than Theresa May, who spent a considerable amount of time hopping up and down to take endless interventions from her own Tory colleagues, would start to wonder whether the party leadership really was a prize worth working so hard for, given the amount of reassurance MPs need on just one policy area. But the Home Secretary and her colleague Chris Grayling remained extraordinarily patient throughout. In the end, the government won its motion on opting out of the measures 341 votes to 244. This will now be followed by reports from the Home Affairs Select Committee, the Justice Select Committee and the European Scrutiny Committee on the measures the government plans to opt back in to.
The whips warned May last week that the motion as it stood would be defeated, so she re-wrote it. Then MPs threatened to support an amendment from Sir Alan Beith, Bill Cash, Keith Vaz (the chairs of the above committees) and Natascha Engel deleting a reference to the list of measures that the government had announced it would definitely opt back in to. These MPs disliked this reference because they felt it gave them less power to properly scrutinise the measures before consenting to the opt-in. Grayling accepted this in quite a casual manner, and thus another rebellion was averted. But Conservative MPs say this gives them hope that in the next few months, they will get a little bit more of what they want, based on the amount of ground the whips have yielded in the past week at the suggestion of a revolt.
One problem that May has is that these opt-ins are being seen by eurosceptics as an omen for David Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the European Union. I hear that the whips have been trying to remind them that on these measures, the party can’t go as far as it would like because it is in a Coalition, and May did the same in today’s debate. She told an anxious Mark Reckless:
‘The issues involving justice and home affairs to which I referred earlier are being considered in the Government’s “balance of competences” review. Undoubtedly the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice will need to be considered when, after the election, a future Conservative Government renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the European Union; but the choice that is before us now is binary. We are a coalition Government with no mandate to seek a renegotiation of our relationship with Europe. We must make a choice about whether, having exercised our right to opt out of these measures, we should seek to opt back into any of them—knowing that we would be subject to the junction of the European Court of Justice—if we think that they are in the national interest.’
All’s well that ends well, for the time being at least. But this is partly because Tory MPs have forced ministers around to their thinking in stages. It’s another example of the psychic backbencher at work. Eurosceptic MPs will now be hoping that they can force their leadership still further before the opt-ins are agreed.
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