Denis MacShane: Confused and contradictory... the Tories’ discomfort over Europe is wondrous to behold

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SO finally the truth is out. Having spent years telling us that the European Union was the source of so many of our ills, David Cameron and William Hague now have to tell their MPs that the EU, is, ahem, on balance, taking one thing with another, a good thing and that they should vote on Monday against a Commons call for a referendum on the issue.

One has to feel sorry for William Hague who erected Euroscepticism into an entire belief system. He used to have the Commons rolling in the aisles as he scorned Labour’s refusal to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Now he has to turn tail and tell the Conservatives that there will be no referendum on his watch.

For me, as someone who dislikes plebiscites and prefers Parliamentary democracy and who is quite happy to be listed as pro-European, the exquisite discomfort of the Tories is wondrous to behold.

For year after year, in speech after speech, article after article, the present-day Conservative elite have told the British people that the EU is a bad thing.

We have been told Europe is responsible for all our laws. Not true. The House of Commons Library says less than seven per cent of UK primary legislation is EU linked.

The EU takes all our money. But it sends billions to farmers and regions and George Osborne is now sending £10bn of taxpayer’s cash to the IMF to recycle to the EU.

But those who believe their own propaganda end up persuading others to believe myths. The Conservative Party, the off-shore owned press and the entire London establishment believe that the EU and the euro are the source of all evil as that is what William Hague and successive Tory leaders have said for nearly two decades.

As a result there is not a single pro-European Tory backbench MP. On Tuesday BBC Radio 4 had a weird Analysis programme with actors speaking the voices of Tory MPs who wanted a more robust Eurosceptic line from the Prime Minister.

It was like a report from Zimbabwe or Syria with fearful men hiding their identity. Tory MPs I spoke to yesterday were baffled. They queue up to go on the airwaves to denounce the EU, demand in-out referendums and make clear their opposition. They speak en clair and found the BBC use of actors a bit batty.

There are a claimed 120 backbenchers who have now formed the Farageiste tendency in the Commons under the guidance of the genial George Eustice, a former Ukip candidate. Another star is Priti Patel, former press officer of the Referendum Party. Neil Kinnock opposed the infiltration of single issue ideologues into Labour in the 1980s. David Cameron put them all on his A-list of candidates.

But now he has to disappoint them. As civil servants take over the life of ministers the pandjandrums of the British state, the City, and business have told the Government that Britain will not leave the EU.

Even poor Lord Wolfson, the Tory peer and chief executive of Next, had to admit in the confused BBC interview that it would be better if the euro muddled through.

He has announced a £250,000 prize for an essay on how to break up the single currency which illustrates the confusion in Tory thinking.

A few want an out-and-out bust up. Daniel Hannan or Douglas Carswell follow their argument to its only conclusion which is a complete out. But Lord Wolfson simultaneously has to promote the break-up of the euro while saying he hopes it survives.

Thus Tory policy and more important philosophy is utterly confused and contradictory. To try and soften the sharpness of the In-Out question, Tory MPs are calling for a referendum to initiate a renegotiation of existing Treaties.

This is whistling in the wind. There may be a new Treaty to enforce a single hegemonic Eurozone governance which will also dictate rules for banking for all of Europe. But you can have as many referendums as you like urging the British or any EU government to press for a new Treaty but the other 26 member states will simply say No. So the Quit Now purists are right and the fudgers are wasting their time with a call for a referendum on renegotiation.

Cameron and Hague have the distasteful duty of telling their backbenchers that their Euroscepticism in opposition is no longer operative. Tory MPs will be told to dump the referendum call.

It remains strange that there is not a single backbencher who takes a different line on Europe. In the 1980s at the height of Labour Europhobia, there were Labour MPs like John Smith or Giles Radice or younger ones like Tony Blair or Gordon Brown who refused to toe the majority line.

But there appears not to be a single Tory MP who dares to challenge the new orthodoxy. Surely a political market opening exists for one Tory MP who says the anti-EU emperor is not that fully clothed?

Cameron can rely on Lib Dem MPs to defeat the referendum vote next week. What of Labour? The party will not renege on its view that being in the EU remains in Britain’s interests.

It will not surrender to those siren calls which offer a one-day headline in the tabloids in exchange for supporting an In-Out plebiscite. Labour will say to Cameron and Hague that they created the modern anti-Europe Tory Party. It is their problem. Some Labour MPs have long taken a different view, but the party as a whole is not going to move to isolationism or endorse the xenophobia which informs some (not all but some) of the ranting against Europe which is now part of national discourse.

Labour could offer Cameron a reserve of votes, like Blucher’s men hurrying to save the day for Wellington at Waterloo, in order to allow the Prime Minister to defeat Tory Eurosceptics next week.

That kind of whipping manoeuvre is tricky. In the end, Europe like the Corn Laws or Ireland or Imperial Preference is an issue that only the Conservative Party can deal with. Meanwhile the rest of Europe moves on.

• Denis MacShane, the Rotherham MP, was Europe Minister during Tony Blair’s second term.