Dominic Raab is one of the most impressive members of the Tory back benches, able to pick a string of good fights and – even rarer – able to win them. He’s a black belt and seems to regard politics as karate by other means. He’s a 3rd Dan in fighting and a 10th Dan in rebellion. But his latest victory – forcing the government into a humiliating climbdown over deporting foreign prisoners – was one too far. Thanks to Labour votes, his amendment failed so all he really achieved was embarrassing the Home Secretary. Yes, Raab can fight. Yes, he can win. But in my Daily Telegraph column today, I suggest it’s time for him (and other rebels) to stop.
Raab was clear, calm and articulate in arguing that foreign prisoners should be stopped from fighting deporation using spurious human rights claims. The government was a mess, first giving him a wink of encouragement only to declare his idea unworkable at he last moment. No10 didn’t agree with the Home Office. Both declared his proposal illegal, but couldn’t vote against it. The government’s weakness, and the paucity of the Prime Minister’s parliamentary authority, was exposed for all to see.
As a journalist, I’m for all this. It’s hilarious. But I can’t see how all of this is in the interests of Tory Eurosceptics. God knows that David Cameron has mishandled relations with his party, and was doing so long before he became Prime Minister. He has stripped the Whips Office of its authority, which means they have no more stick to put about. No10 responds quickly and regularly to pressure, as if in a constant panic. This, of course, invites pressure, especially in a Eurosceptic cause. But what’s happening now looks less like strategy and more like the political equivalent of happy slapping. With an election campaign 14 months away, and Ed Miliband ready to do to Britain what Hollande is doing to France, the stakes are rather high.
The rebels can be divided into the serious Eurosceptics, who rebel for a reason, and about a dozen headbangers who just loathe Cameron and want him gone. They are the Tory equivalent of Labour’s Bennites – who prefer ideological purity to power.
The majority of Tories are in the former group, and will know that there will be one of two outcomes in next year’s election.
1) David Cameron is Prime Minister, so there’s an EU referendum
2) Ed Miliband is Prime Minister, and there’s no EU referendum.
The amendments being laid down now by the rebels (tweaking immigration controls, challenging the authority of the ECHR) are trivial compared to what Britain may achieve in the renegotiation of EU membership which Cameron had promised to undertake. Ah, I hear you say, the EU won’t give him anything. Well, if not, then the referendum will end in a ‘no’ vote – and Britain will be off.
But none of this will happen if Ed Miliband is Prime Minister. And even now, he’s on course to win next year – still the bookmakers’ favourite. Yes, his opinion poll lead had been reduced to two pitiful points earlier this week, but that’s all Labour needs for a majority. The Westminster voting system is stacked in its favour. If he was two points behind, he’d still end up Prime Minister but 16 votes short of a majority.
For the Tories to win, pretty much everything needs to go right between now and election day. And if they look like a disorganised shower, they are unlikely to be elected. So Tories have to weigh what’s to be gained by rebellion (lots of fun, a concession or three out of No10) versus what’s to be lost (making the Tories look divided, disunited, unelectable. And carrion for Ukip).
There really aren’t that many legislative battles to be fought between now and polling day. The Tories are good fighters; Dominic Raab especially. They’ve outwitted this coalition government, and can probably win a parliamentary battle any time they really put their mind to it. Raab has perfected the art of parliamentary insurgency. Cameron needs help (boy, does he need help) taking the fight to Labour.
So I’d suggest the Eurosceptics’ real enemies are on the other side of the floor of the Commons. The guys in red rosettes promising no referendum and, in its place, a deluge of regulation and taxes. The election campaign is 14 months away and Miliband, for all his faults, can at least say that he leads a united party. To defeat him (and Ukip) Cameron needs to be able to say the same. Things are going pretty well for the Tories – and they could still win, if they keep it together. A rather big ‘if’.