Magazine article The Spectator

Europe Returns to the Commons - and, This Time, Nobody Is Safe

Magazine article The Spectator

Europe Returns to the Commons - and, This Time, Nobody Is Safe

Article excerpt

Only one thought has consoled Gordon Brown throughout the horrors of the European Union Reform Treaty. He had always expected a mauling for agreeing it, and had no choice but to sign the wretched document in Lisbon. He could not hold a referendum he was certain to lose. So the Prime Minister knew he would have to put his head in a pillory and wait for Fleet Street's rotten vegetables to fly. But it would end, he'd wipe his face clean and then have something worthwhile in his hands: a weapon with which to split the Conservative party.

Battle is joined once again next Monday when the European Union (Amendment) Bill has its second reading. Mr Brown has arranged that next month's parliamentary timetable invites instant comparison with the mutinous Maastricht debates that almost sank John Major at the time and certainly did much to ensure his eventual electoral destruction. You might think such comparisons would terrify Mr Brown, who hates being seen as New Labour's Major. But the opposite is true. Mr Brown plans at least four weeks debating what is now the Lisbon Treaty, the document which is (according to the Commons European Scrutiny Committee) 'substantially equivalent' to the constitution on which a referendum was promised. The Tories are not faking their contempt for it. But once it's ratified, what then? David Cameron will not say what he would do. Mr Brown hopes Tory Eurosceptics will demand an answer from their own leader.

The Prime Minister's aim is nothing less than to turn the tables during the Lisbon Treaty debate, hoping that the press will start sniffing out Tory splits. His goal is not entirely fanciful. 'As soon as that Treaty is signed it will be a massive problem for us, ' one shadow cabinet member tells me. 'It will put our relationship with Europe on a basis which I and many others consider unacceptable. It will have to be resolved.' But how? The way the European Union accretes power is by refusing to let any member state backtrack unless they want to leave the union altogether. And while Mr Brown knows he is on the wrong side of British public opinion over his broken promise to hold a referendum, he is itching to move on to the terrain of 'in or out of Europe' where he is far more comfortable and the Tories are divided. All he has to do is outmanoeuvre Mr Cameron in the parliamentary battles of the next few weeks.

For months, whips in all three parties have been devising tactics. The Tories aim to avoid the landmines Mr Brown is planting by bringing every subject back to their demands for a referendum -- and the inadequacy of the government's 'red lines'. Labour aims to hold the inevitable Commons vote on whether there should be a referendum early, so as to resolve the matter as quickly as possible. Then ministers want to go on the offensive and start inviting Mr Cameron to choose between the Treaty or leaving the EU. The Liberal Democrats will seek a referendum on this very question -- and not, bizarrely, the Treaty itself.

For most involved, it is a parliamentary game of three-dimensional chess. But for the Tory Eurosceptics, this is an issue of nationhood and sovereignty. And they constitute more than just an old guard of Maastricht veterans.

If anything, it is the pro-European Tories who are dying out and being replaced with younger, hardened Eurosceptics who see this as a simple issue of democracy and accountability. One Tory MP told me, 'Winning our country back will be the battle of the next decade.' By the time the Bill to agree the Lisbon Treaty is voted on it may well feel like a decade. Labour strategists privately admit that boredom will be a key weapon in the debate, as they seek to bury all embarrassing points in the jargon which has for years been used by Brussels as camouflage. Yet at the same time David Miliband, who got off to a shaky start as Foreign Secretary, will try to recover by winning over Labour rebels. His aim is to portray the Treaty as enforcing Labour priorities (children's care, international aid and the environment). …

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