Comment: Cameron has declared war on his own party

David Cameron has made a fatal error in enforcing a three-line whip on David Nuttall's EU referendum motion.

By Simon Richards

As leader of the opposition, David Cameron, almost from the start, adopted the mantra of ‘Don’t mention the EU’. I say almost from the start because one of the reasons he wrong-footed David Davis to win the Tory leadership was a crafty pledge to pull the Conservatives in the European parliament out of the pro-EU European People’s party.

This gained him the support even of the most anti-EU Tory MEPs and undermined David Davis’s claims to represent the eurosceptic majority of the party. Davis himself proposed a double referendum on the EU. It was an intelligent approach, but one which lacked the headline-grabbing simplicity of Cameron’s EPP bribe.

In opposition, many Tories were happy enough to go along with their new leader and to try to pretend that the EU didn’t exist, but it was never going to be a credible stance for a prime minister. David Davis is still promoting his double referendum approach – indeed he did so only this weekend, at the Congress for an EU Referendum organised by the People’s Pledge. Now, perhaps, the man Cameron defeated six years ago may yet have the last laugh, for the prime minister has painted himself into a corner and the momentum is now with Davis and others who have little concern for their leader’s welfare.

Cameron made a fatal error in enforcing a three-line whip on David Nuttall’s EU referendum motion. To understand why, one needs to go back to his misreading of events during John Major’s time at No 10. Cameron has convinced himself that the people to blame for the general election defeat in 1997 were the Maastricht rebels who, following the ERM fiasco, when Major had stubbornly – and foolishly – ignored their warnings, decided to take a stand against a massive surrender of power to the EU.

Strong prime ministers, such as Thatcher, never feel the need to take on their enemies on the back benches in order to demonstrate their strength; weak ones, such as Major (and Cameron) do. When Major withdrew the whip from the handful of rebel Tory MPs, he confidently expected them to face fury in their constituencies, but he had not reckoned with the growing euroscepticism of the Tory grass roots. Whilst many of the rebels were attacked by their local constituency chairmen, many party members regarded them as heroes. Major was forced to make a humiliating climb down, restoring the whip to the rebels, with no concessions on their part.

Cameron should have remembered Major’s miscalculation when he decided to take on the eurorealists this time round. But, quite apart from his misreading of recent history, how things have changed since the 1990s! Then, Major faced a small number of principled anti-EU MPs. Now, following two decades of surrender to Brussels, those numbers have become swollen, with over 70 set to defy a three-line whip today. Not just that, but they include senior figures such as David Davis and, perhaps even more tellingly, the chairman of the 1922 committee executive, Graham Brady. That shows just how far Cameron has lost control of his own party.

But it gets even worse for Cameron. In Major’s day, the prime minister could at least rely on the local party chairmen to put pressure on rebel MPs. Now, acknowledging the overwhelmingly eurosceptic mood of his shrinking party activists, he brought forward the referendum vote in order to give party members less time to tell their MPs to back a referendum. What a confession that is of the extent to which he’s lost the support of his own party faithful, who have seen the party lose hundreds of thousands of members under Cameron’s leadership and have been angered by being priced out of their own party conference.

And it’s not just the grassroots who are now backing pro-referendum Tory MPs. On my way to the Congress for an EU Referendum on Saturday, I bumped into my own local Conservative Association chairman, who was also attending. Was she alone? Evidently not, because as soon as we went in, she spotted the chairman of a nearby association.

Cameron has been outmanoeuvred by his opponents on this vote. David Nuttall, a signatory to The Freedom Association’s Better Off Out campaign and a man whom I have known for many years, is a quiet man, but a master of detail and procedure. He also just happens to be the most rebellious of a notably rebellious new intake of Tory MPs.

Cameron’s attempt to undermine calls for an EU referendum by setting up a spoiler group of eurosceptics, headed by a loyal Cameroon, George Eustice, looked like a masterstroke a few weeks back. Although I knew it had come into being with the full approval of the Tory whips, I welcomed it because I knew that its first meeting had been attended by many genuine eurosceptics, as well as by self-styled ones. Now, that group is in tatters – split down the middle between the genuine ones, who have signed David Nuttall’s motion and the 'gissajob' element which is about as genuinely eurosceptic as Ken Clarke.

So the prime minister finds himself at war with his backbenchers, his constituency activists, his party members and – yes, let’s not forget them – his voters. And I didn’t even mention that most Conservative-supporting newspapers, including the Daily Mail and Daily Express are fiercely opposed to him on the EU. Online – and in the blogosphere – it’s even worse for Dave, with Conservative Home, Iain Dale and Guido Fawkes all opposing his pro-EU stance.

So, congratulations prime minister. You’ve gone to war with your own party and made enemies of every section of it except the payroll vote – and many of them would oppose you, given half a chance. But it’s not all bad – at least Lord Heseltine still backs you, but then again, he still backs British membership of the Euro. Oh – and one other man is grateful to you for what you’re doing for his party – and that’s Nigel Farage!

Simon Richards is director of the Freedom Association

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