Having shipped the Memsahib off to foreign parts for the weekend (a posh Works outing to Disneyland Paris no less), I have less obligations to fulfill domestically. Thus undistracted, I am able to consider the supersedence of the United Kingdom as the supreme legal and political authority in these Islands and how the battlefield now lies.
The Labour Party has got its way. That is the plain consequence of the votes in Parliament this week. They have used every Parliamentary device and chicanery to ram through the bill ratifying the Treaty of Lisbon, thus thwarting the wishes of the people of the United Kingdom to have their say upon their handiwork. This may resolve for Labour the short-term problem of avoiding a messy and inevitably unsuccessful referendum campaign, the consequences of which would have been dire for them.
As they must now be accounted an unashamedly Europhile party, failing to ratify a Treaty which gives enormous and largely untrammeled power to the European Union would have forced them into a position of having to give effect to a political position which they have time and again denounced. In other words they would have found themselves forced by the overwhelming vote of the people to make a volte-face so humiliating that Brown would have to call an immediate general election which Labour would almost certainly lose. Instead a carefully choreographed charade has been conducted under the heading of ‘line-by-line scrutiny’ accompanied by some vigourous whipping of backsliders who have had all manner of threats made to them. This has been Labour’s Pork-barrel Politics at its very worst and most cynically corrupt.
Yet the gain has, I suggest, only been a very short-term one. The long-term consequences may be less easily to quantify, but the issue of trust in Labour is one which will not disappear now that the business of the Treaty is done and dusted in the House of Commons. For no elector can take seriously any promise which Labour makes, whether within or without a manifesto. If they will renege on a promise of such substance and significance, then there is nothing about which they will not lie or cheat to save the Labour Party’s rotten scrawny neck when it suits them.
They think Europe is a matter of no moment to the British People and that they have gotten away with it. This I beg to doubt. The British people when they had a modest chance so to do turned out in surprising numbers in the referenda of ‘I Want A Referendum’ in ten constituencies up and down the land to signify their rejection of Labour’s anti-democratic actions. The very size of the vote and the majorities for a referendum and against the Treaty must have sent a cold shiver down what passes for the backbone of the Labour Party. They hope it is but a passing fad, but I believe they misread the runes. The British people are, as I think David Cameron is dimly aware, so much I ‘anti-politics’ mode that they will not soon forget this shabby, dishonourable and dishonest course of conduct but will bide their time until they have a chance to show their disapproval.
But at least the Labour party, having decided upon a position, stuck to it, however mendacious and disgraceful it was. The Liberal ‘Democrats’, however, come out of the last fortnight in tatters. They have paraded their rampant Europhilia up and down the land for all to see and demonstrated once and for all that they put the interests of the EU far above the wishes of the British people. In so doing they have tried to be all things to all men, an objective which has seen them throw a childish paddy culminating in sixty-odd drama queens flouncing out of the House of Commons when they did not get their way.
To compound their folly, they chose, on the issue of whether or not to have a referendum on the Treaty, a matter that the British people believe to be of considerable significance, to have no opinion at all. That must rank as one of the daftest and most squalid pieces of politicking in many a long year. Some braver Lib ‘Dems’ MPs with an eye to their re-election chances, chose to vote for a referendum and, it is said, as many as fifty would have done so had there not been a whipped vote.
Nick Clegg has thus managed in a few short weeks to lose control of his party, look weak, ridiculous, unprincipled, devious, dishonest and dishonourable and to achieve that which it normally takes many years to manage, namely the contempt of the House and the electorate. He only just squeaked past the winning post for the leadership a few weeks ago: now he would be hard pushed to win at all. The half of the party that did not vote for him now knows it was right: he is a turkey. The other half of the party which did vote for him is faced with the awful probability that he is a turkey. This will hardly do wonders for morale, especially amongst those Lib ‘Dems’ facing Tory pressure in English marginals, even if they did vote for the referendum.
In addition Clegg has brought to his party the same opprobrium which attaches to the Labour for voting down its own manifesto commitment to hold a referendum. One cannot imagine a wily old hand such as Paddy Ashdown having got into this position and therein lies the rub. Clegg’s problem is that he comes from a background as an MEP wherein he existed within the comfort zone of an institution racked with rampant Europhilia. This is his experience of life until, in 2005, he is elected to Parliament. Thus he arrives in the leadership bereft of any real experience of having to fight his corner having only thus far existed in the soothing comfort of the Euro perma-slime where everything is rubber-stamped. His lack of experience shows through in this episode. He does not now have time for on-the-job training. His opponents have already scented weakness in him and thus the wolves may bee seen padding along in the tree line waiting their moment. It will come.
Superficially the Tories have come through the process in better shape. Though forty-odd of them voted for the supremacy of our parliament, only, bizarrely, to be denounced as rebels, and the usual suspects actually voted with the government (quite how anyone ever thought it possible for Ken Clarke to be leader of the party is beyond me), by sticking to their guns the Toriues have emerged largely united and consistent.
I have two problems with this.
Firstly I thought that the frontbench effort was lukewarm to say the least. Oh yes, Hague came forth with his usual bravura effort. Its problem was that it was a speech crafted for after dinner at the Carlton Club and not for the serious business of attacking the government. If this Treaty is considered sufficiently inimical to British interests to merit a referendum and if, as all on the right assert, this has been a piece of shameful, dishonourable chicanery on the part of Labour then what was required from Hague was not a carefully crafted humoresque of a speech but rather one which, as one might be entitled to expect from a Yorkshireman, called a spade a spade and got stuck into Labour and the Lib ‘Dems’. What we got was funny but inconsequential.
One is left with the sense that the Tory frontbench are not too bothered if the Treaty enters into force. They fear the consequences and implications of reopening old rifts on Europe and resolutely wish it would all go away without anyone noticing. The problem is that it will not. And inherent in that situation is the notion that sooner or later a Tory government must confront the European issue, not least by ascertaining what relationship the people of the United Kingdom wish to have with the EU.
Which brings me to the second problem I have. Setting on one side for a moment the totality of the Treaty and its politico-legal implications, there is one provision which seems to me to lie at the heart of the Tory problem. This is the ability henceforth of the EU to abolish an individual member’s veto over a ‘competence’ by Qualified Majority Voting rather than having to resort to a process of negotiation and then treaty agreement. Sooner rather than later Britain is going to find itself objecting to a veto being abolished but is going to be overruled by QMV.
In those circumstances the sovereignty of the United Kingdom will be ripped away against the wishes of the government and without the consent either of the United Kingdom Parliament or the British people.
At that point the Tory mantra of ‘in Europe but not ruled by Europe’ will be seen for the nonsense it is, a hollow lie. And at that point the Tory party will be faced one of two choices: either it knuckles under and kowtows to the Federalists or it says that it will not countenance any more this loss of sovereignty. Simply to shrug the shoulders and say that it is all water under the bridge and that nothing can or should be done is not a tenable position.
In these circumstances doing nothing is not an option. The Conservative Party has to come off the fence and decide if it is a federalist party or a disengagement party. If the latter, then it must decide if it has a post-ratification referendum on the Treaty. Andrew Lillico on ConservativeHome argues forcefully against such a course. He is concerned that such would not be won and that that would be a disaster. It would be such, but if conducted in the immediate aftermath of an election, I doubt it would be lost, especially with the current figures in mind. He reckons that authority to renegotiate would be achieved simply from the fact of a general election win. I beg to differ. General elections have a habit of being about all sorts of issues and would leave the nature of the people’s support in a state of opacity.
A referendum on the other hand would give the government a negotiating position of enormous strength: any refusal on the part of the EU to give way would be an affront to the clearly-expressed will of the British people and would play into our hands.
But perhaps having a clear mandate is the very last thing our Euro-complaisant Tory leadership actually wants. What, one suspects, it would prefer is a lot of fudge so that it can worm out of having to address the fundamental issue: do we still wish to have a relationship in which we can no longer control our loss of sovereignty or not?