Analysis: EU storms on Cameron's horizon

Europe: Still able to divide the Tories
Europe: Still able to divide the Tories

Squabbling over the upcoming bill introducing an EU referendum lock could reveal the extent of distrust between David Cameron and his party.

By Ian Dunt

Europe and the Conservatives. Even when the issue appears to go away, it remains merely out of sight, ready to make things more complicated.

Despite all the colour and emotions surrounding the tuition fees vote, it is Europe which is most likely to result in the government's first defeat. If so, it would be a spectacular irony, because the bill before the Commons on Tuesday was purposely intended to quell Tory discontent over Europe.

Cameron had originally been forced to back down on a promise of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty because the Tory leadership decided the fury of eurosceptics was a worthwhile price to pay for maintaining some international reputation. A referendum on a treaty which was already set in stone would have turned the UK into a laughing stock.

The then-leader of the opposition's effort to minimise discontent resulted in a promise that there would, in the future, be a referendum on any substantial reform of UK's relationship with Europe. As the European Union bill puts it: "Any proposed future EU treaty, or amendment to the treaties, and major ratchet clauses that transfer competences or areas of power from the UK to the EU would be subject to a referendum."

The European Union bill: Full details

Tuesday sees the bill undergo committee stage. Usually this means that members of the public bill committee can propose amendments, but in this case all members of the House will be able to do so - and vote on them. A substantial number of Tory MPs are understood to be trying to significantly amend the legislation, with proposals so radical the leadership will struggle to accept them. That will be a tough decision. If the government refuses to budge, rebel Tory backbenchers could vote against the bill.

If they did so, they might find some cooperation from Labour. Ed Miliband was reported by the Sunday Telegraph to be preparing to order his MPs to vote against it, in a bid to inflict a defeat on the government. That report has not been confirmed by Labour although shadow foreign secretary Yvette Cooper branded the bill "a dog's dinner".

Why are Tories so intent on scuppering, or at least radically overhauling, a bill designed to placate them? Partly because they believe there are significant problems with the bill itself. A minister will decide whether a treaty should be defined as "significant". That's problematic because any government will always be desperate to avoid a referendum. To counter that criticism, the decision will be subject to judicial review. That's also problematic, Labour says, because it hands powers that belong to parliament to the judiciary.

But the truth is that opposition is more concerned with David Cameron's relationship with his own party than it is with the details of the European Union bill.

As ConservativeHome noted recently, Cameron has "a trust deficit unmatched by any post-war Conservative leader" when it comes to his party. Case in point: Oldham East and Saddleworth. Merely by offering his best wishes to the Liberal Democrat candidate, Cameron prompted sparks of rebellion from the influential backbench 1922 committee.

Secretary Mark Pritchard made it clear that unless he opposed any attempt at a "Frankenstein" Lib/Con hybrid party, the Tory rank-and-file would refuse to campaign in future elections - a sort of activist strike. Cameron promptly visited the constituency himself (albeit on a blink-and-you'll-miss-it basis) to dispel concerns about his support for the Tory candidate.

In reality, Cameron does want the Lib Dems to win. It's a three-way marginal and the Tories are a mere 2,000 vote behind the other two, but only the Lib Dems would realistically take the seat from Labour. A humiliating loss here would pile even more pressure on Nick Clegg. The standing of the Lib Dems has sunk so low that it is threatening the coalition. The more Lib Dem MPs feel that they are doomed, the more tempted they will be to get out of the coalition.

But that is short of wanting to permanently conjoin the Conservatives with the Lib Dems. These suspicions stem for the increasingly widespread conspiracy theory, among Tory backbenchers at least, that Cameron wants to join the parties in an effort to finally end the Thatcherite wing of the Conservatives and drag it to the centre.

Cameron does enjoy the effect the Lib Dems have on the Conservative party - both politically and in terms of shielding the Tories from attack - but it is unlikely that he is seriously considering a more formal, long-lasting arrangement. However, backbench suspicions and the arrival of their key issue in the Commons provide a potentially poisonous cocktail.

Cameron and William Hague have struck a much more pragmatic and conciliatory tone on Europe in office than they ever did in opposition. Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers will therefore use Tuesday's opportunity to assert their power. But their comfort with rebellion says more about their fractious relationship with their party leader than it does the details of the bill itself.


Politics @ Lunch

Friday lunchtime. Your Inbox. It's a date.