Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron Will Announce an EU Referendum by Christmas

Magazine article The Spectator

Cameron Will Announce an EU Referendum by Christmas

Article excerpt

William Hague is now one of the most pro-European Conservative member of the Cabinet. The man once reviled by the bien-pensant for his views on this subject is now regarded by the Liberal Democrats as a brake on his more sceptical colleagues and praised in Brussels for his pragmatism. He told his party's conference that he wants Britain's membership of the European Union to be about more than just the single market and to extend to 'co-operation on climate change and other great issues facing us'.

In today's Conservative party, this is unusual. When I asked various ministers in Birmingham if they agreed with it, nearly all said emphatically not. Even allowing for the fact that Conservative ministers are never more Eurosceptic than when they are at conference and have had a glass of wine or two, their obstinacy was still striking.

Friends of the Foreign Secretary maintain that he has not changed his views on the European Union since he was leader. He is still the same man who campaigned to keep the pound, they argue. A fair point: it is not his views that have changed but the party's.

The Conservatives have become far more Eurosceptic: the belief that Britain should leave if it can't negotiate far better terms is now a mainstream position.

Tellingly, after the Mail on Sunday revealed that the Education Secretary Michael Gove holds this view, Cabinet colleagues wanted it known that they agreed with him or that they had long been of that opinion. There was also no rubbishing of Gove's views from either No. 10 or No. 11. In part this is because the Education Secretary, who is a regular guest at Chequers, is the Prime Minister and Chancellor's closest ally in the Cabinet. But it is also a reflection of political reality: a Conservative Downing Street concerned about party management cannot be seen to slap down someone for being too Eurosceptic.

It is easy to forget what a change this is.

One veteran of the Major years observed to me this week that in his day Gove would have had either to deny that he thought Britain should threaten to leave, or quit the government. This Euroscepticism isn't limited to MPs and activists. Party donors now firmly oppose the reach of Brussels. The party chairman Andrew Feldman's own position reflects this.

The people least happy with Gove's demarche are at the Foreign Office. There POLITICS|J A M E S F O R S Y T H has been much grumbling from King Charles Street about how the Education Secretary is undercutting Britain's influence. There are warnings that his intervention might result in a worse EU budget settlement for Britain.

One senior Foreign Office source observes, icily, that the Foreign Secretary 'has very little patience with self-indulgence by colleagues either senior or junior'.

Hague wants his party to demonstrate 'strategic patience'. Certainly, what Downing Street needs most when it comes to Europe is time. David Cameron will try and buy some this autumn with a commitment that, if re-elected, he will renegotiate Britain's membership of the European Union and then hold a referendum on the results.

As a precursor to this renegotiation, the coalition is undertaking a 'balance of competences' review. This might sound a thoroughly dull, bureaucratic exercise. But it is terribly important because for the first time it will reveal just how much the European Union influences our national life. …

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