|Every Tory Big Beast needs to say something on Europe…|
It is an essential qualification of the exclusive Conservative club of ‘Big Beasts’ – a group of high-profile Tories competing to succeed David Cameron, or who at least have considered themselves leadership contenders at one point or another – to have made an intervention on the UK’s fraught relationship with Europe, preferably in a powerful article followed up by a substantial and well-thought through speech. With the half way mark in this Parliament crossed, and with the possibility of the Tories winning the 2015 general elections seemingly shrinking by the day (though much could still change), the Conservative Party is quietly contemplating a life in opposition, and who might possibly take over from Cameron.
For a range of reasons, Europe will feature prominently in any leadership campaign, and one particularly uncomfortable question will be difficult to avoid: will any of the contenders openly advocate the UK leaving the EU, thereby (if selected) making the Tories a ‘better off out’ party in opposition?
Well, here’s our Big Beast watch, in chronological order (based on interventions in the debate over the least year). If we’ve omitted anyone, our apologies.
Michael Gove: A serving Cabinet Minister he nevertheless let if be known in the Mail on 13 October 2012 that he wants Britain to give other EU nations an ultimatum: “Give us back our sovereignty or we will walk out.”
Philip Hammond: Not to be outdone he added his name to Goves’s comments telling the BBC on 14 October 2012 that “What Michael is reflecting, and many of us feel, is that we are not satisfied with the current relationship between the EU and the UK.”
Owen Paterson: He ventured outside of his pursuit of EU agricultural and fisheries reform on 7 December 2011 to tell the Spectator that “If there was a major fundamental change in our relationship, emerging from the creation of a new bloc which would be effectively a new country from which we were excluded, then I think inevitably there would be huge pressure for a referendum.”
David Davis: A former Minister and Shadow Home Secretary, runner-up to Cameron in the last leadership contest and senior member of the BB club. He made a speech on the 19 November 2012 saying “We should seek the repatriation of a whole range of powers to create a new relationship between Britain and the EU” based on the original “Common Market [via] the so-called double referendum strategy.” One referendum to approve a negotiation strategy and another to “approve the new negotiated relationship, or if it was not good enough, it would trigger the negotiation to leave the Union.”
Boris Johnson: The Mayor of London on 4 December 2012 delivered his speech (video here) setting out a similar theme of renegotiation and referenda saying the UK should “Boil it to down to the single market, that’s the great achievement of the European Union, I think we could easily scrap the social chapter, the fisheries policy.” He concluded “The choice is going to be very simple: it’s between staying in on our terms or getting out.”
Dr Liam Fox: The Former Defence Secretary and leadership contender was next on 10 December 2012. In his speech to RUSI and Open Europe he argued that there was a new consensus forming that the “debate has centred on the need for a defined negotiating period over the EU issue ending in a much needed referendum.” Concluding “To be frank, if the choice is between the current trajectory towards ever closer union and leaving, then I would choose to leave, albeit reluctantly. If the choice is between a looser, more economic relationship and leaving, then I would choose to stay. It is a view that, I believe, is gaining ever greater traction with the British people.”
George Osborne: The Chancellor made an intervention in an interview with Die Welt saying: “I very much hope that Britain remains a member of the EU. But in order that we can remain in the European Union, the EU must change.”
Adam Afriyie: The young pretender to the BB club and a former shadow Minister. He wrote an article for the Telegraph on 11 January 2013 arguing that “It is now time to ask the British people what they want. If the Government is to fulfil its commitment to offer people a real choice and a real change in our EU relations, then in my view it would be wise to offer two referendums: one in this parliament and a conclusive one in the next.”
Andrea Leadsom: A new MP and therefore not traditionally considered a BB, Andrea Leadsom has however been a leading light in the Conservative EU Fresh Start project, working with a large number of her fellow MPs. Her views are summed up in an article for Conservative Home on 3 February 2013 after the Fresh Start manifesto was published on 16 January 2013.
Andrew Mitchell: Another BB new to the backbenches he added his weight to the European debate in an article for the FT on 19 February 2013 where he echoed David Cameron’s sentiments and put forwards some ideas for European reform. However Mitchell has been widely tipped to be nominated as the UK’s next EU Commissioner in 2014.
Theresa May: Although not a traditional BB, the Home Secretary may not have made any major interventions on the overall EU question, she made a speech on 9 March 2013 arguing that “by 2015 we’ll need a plan for dealing with the [non-EU] European Court of Human Rights. And yes, I want to be clear that all options – including leaving the Convention altogether – should be on the table.”
Jesse Norman: Another junior backbencher and not a conventional BB but has been widely tipped as a future leader, and he has raised his profile as the leader of a rebellion against the Coalition’s plans to reform the House of Lords. He has now entered into the EU sphere with a thought-provoking article for the Telegraph yesterday followed up by a speech to the Localis think tank.
Of course David Cameron’s speech of 23 January 2013 is the yardstick against which they will all have to be measured.
So what do we make of them? Well there is a surprising amount of agreement between the Big Beasts centred on the idea of a EU renegotiation followed by a referendum. Whoever is leading the Conservative party (in Government of Opposition) for the foreseeable future will probably subscribe to some variant of this. But there’s also a possibility that someone goes down the ‘better off out’ route, perhaps triggered by some event in Europe which is perceived as a blow to the UK’s chances of getting a new EU deal.
Who might that be? The comment field is open…Open Europe blog team