Sensible rebellion on Europe, for all the wrong reasons

Published in The Financial Times (November 2, 2012)

From the start of his leadership, David Cameron urged his party to stop banging on about Europe. It alienated voters, he said. In opposition, his troops took his advice. The bickering that caused the Conservatives so much misery for so many years was buried as they focused on power. In government, divisions have inevitably returned.

The defeat over the EU budget is a blow to the prime minister’s authority. He was forced to shift his personal position, belatedly admitting he favoured a cut, yet still lost a heavily whipped vote with 53 MPs defying him. This dwarfs the number of Maastricht rebels who made life such a misery for John Major.

This is not simply an unwelcome return of the “bastards”, as Sir John memorably termed his malcontents. It is true that for all Mr Cameron’s scepticism of Brussels, which has only been inflamed by experience in government, he is a pragmatist in a party infested with zealots unwilling to compromise on Europe.

His defeat increases the likelihood of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership – especially when Labour is prepared to play games on such an important issue – and at the very least a renegotiation over terms of engagement. Our relationship with Europe looks set to be a feature at the next general election, however parochial this country’s concerns appear in a fast-changing world. Mr Cameron may be forced to bang on rather a lot about the subject.

Wednesday’s defeat, however, highlights more immediate issues over the prime minister’s control of his ranks. Undeniably his team is guilty of some ineptitude. But his party is close to unmanageable, such is its amazing ability to inflict wounds on itself. Increasingly, it appears to have suicidal tendencies that would make a lemming proud.

There is a sizeable group of rightwingers that has never liked Mr Cameron or his policies. In opposition, they tolerated him since he looked a winner. In government, they have become frustrated and fractious despite radicalism on deficit reduction and public service reform. With powers of patronage limited by coalition, the prime minister has failed to placate enough of his party to diminish their impact.

This week’s vote again reveals the failure to appease these MPs; their lust for a self-harming stance can never be truly satisfied. But this is far from the full story. We are witnessing the most rebellious parliament in postwar history, with at least one government MP defying the whip in four out of every 10 parliamentary votes.

This assertion of backbench power is not just down to daily trials of coalition. It reflects the changing nature of politics in a less deferential age, led by recently elected and more independent-minded politicians.

The coalition’s creation offered an opportunity to adopt a more modern approach to politics, one in keeping with the age of Twitter and greater transparency. The leadership could have loosened controls over backbenchers by permitting, perhaps even encouraging, more open discussion and even dissent. The idea was briefly discussed but sadly spurned. It would have softened the impact of subsequent revolts.

Instead the combination of old questions over Europe, an unruly rump on the right and the impatience of new backbenchers is creating a toxic mix for Mr Cameron. But for all the froth and fury consuming the Westminster village yesterday, this latest defeat will soon fade into the distance. There will be more dramas, more crises, more worst weeks.

Underlying the debate was an almost exquisite twist. The rebels on the right were driven by unquenchable dislike of Britain’s membership of the EU. The opposition on the left was guilty of crass opportunism; voters know Labour was the party that handed back part of the rebate and piled on the nation’s debt in the first place.

The motivations were dubious on both sides. But the central cause of rebellion was correct. Brussels is guilty of breathtaking waste with its inflated bureaucracy, grotesque inefficiencies, overpaid officials and spendthrift policies. This is unacceptable at a time when economic meltdown is causing misery across Europe and governments are imposing tough austerity measures. And the voices making the case loudest should be those that support membership, not those who oppose it.

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