“Fresh consent for a fresh settlement”
Yesterday was a good day for the House of Commons, if you think it is important that members of the Government should spend a lot of time in the Chamber being accountable to our elected representatives. The Prime Minister on Europe and then the Chancellor on the interest-rate-fixing scandal answered questions at the despatch box for two and a quarter hours yesterday.
Personally, I think the fetishisation of the House can be overdone and that the Prime Minister and Chancellor’s time is such a precious resource that it should not be deployed so generously on such repetitious tasks. But it provides a lot of interesting raw material for us political obsessives.
You can read the Hansard yourself, but here are my highlights.
Ed Miliband’s response to David Cameron’s European statement was not a bad bit of opposition. He did not say what Labour would do about the negotiations among eurozone countries for political union, or a referendum, but it was entertaining enough:
Finally, there is Europe and the Prime Minister’s position—or should I call it his weekend hokey-cokey? On Friday, he ruled out a referendum. He said:
“‘I completely understand why some people want an in/out referendum… I do not think that is the right thing to do..”
Hours later—what a coincidence—100 Back Benchers and the former Defence Secretary called for an in/out referendum. Then, hey presto, on Sunday—[Interruption] —the Prime Minister hinted that he might rule one in. Then the Foreign Secretary—[Interruption.]
Then the Foreign Secretary was sent out to say on television:
“The Prime Minister… is not changing our position.”
Three days, three positions. First it was no, then it was yes, and then it was maybe.
Can Members on both sides of the House have some clarity about the Prime Minister’s position? First, has there been a change in the Government’s position, yes or no? Secondly, the Prime Minister talked of a referendum being connected to the renegotiation of powers. To be fair to him, his position on renegotiation is long-standing, not least because he has got nowhere in negotiating it, but is he now saying that he may be in favour of withdrawal from the European Union if he does not get these powers? That would be a new position. It would be helpful—and I am sure that his Back Benchers would like it too—if we could have a “yes” or “no” answer to that question as well.
Thirdly, can the Prime Minister explain this? Last October, he said in the House:
“there is a danger that by raising the prospect of a referendum… we will miss the real opportunity to further our national interest.”—[Official Report, 24 October 2011; Vol. 534, c. 27.]
So why is he doing it now? We all know the answer to that question. It is not to sort out the crisis of growth, it is not to tackle youth unemployment, and it has nothing to do with the national interest. It is all about managing the divisions in the Prime Minister’s own party. But a nudge-nudge, wink-wink European policy is not good for the country, nor will it keep his party quiet.
Five years ago, the Prime Minister said that his party should stop banging on about Europe, but now he is the man getting out the drum. As John Major could have told him, it is not going to work. We have a veto that never was, a referendum that the Prime Minister cannot explain, a party talking to itself, a Prime Minister who is managing his party rather than leading the country, and a Government who are letting Britain down.
Even Simon Carr in his sketch for The Independent noted that Ed Miliband had silenced the Tory Eurosceptics.
Cameron’s fullest answer on the referendum question came in answer to Julian Lewis, the Conservative MP for New Forest East, who asked “Is it my right hon. Friend’s position that in any referendum on Europe while he is Prime Minister, the option of voting to leave the EU will not appear on the ballot paper?”
No, that is not what I have said. What I have said is that I do not support an immediate in/out referendum. I believe that we should show strategic and tactical patience, and then I want to see a fresh settlement for which we seek fresh consent. The right time to determine questions about referendums and the rest of it will be after we have that fresh settlement. That is what we should do.
That line, fresh consent for a fresh settlement, I think moves the argument about Europe on, not necessarily in ways that are sensible, as Steve Richards argues in The Independent today.
Finally, when George Osborne responded to Ed Balls’s response to his statement about the Libor scandal, there was an element of shoulder-barging in the playground:
There was one question that dared not speak its name: who was the City Minister when the LIBOR scandal happened? Who? Put your hand up if you were the City Minister when the LIBOR scandal happened.
The shadow Chancellor was not here on Thursday, so he has had days to think about it, but there was not one word of apology for what happened when he was in charge of regulating the City. He blamed central bankers around the world and he blamed the Opposition of the day, but he did not take personal responsibility for the time he was regulating the City when the Libor scandal started, and that is why he will not be listened to seriously until he does. Indeed, we need to know whether he knew anything of what was going on. Did he express any concern about the LIBOR rate? When he was in the Cabinet and Gordon Brown, the right hon. Member for wherever it is, was Prime Minister, was he concerned about the LIBOR rate and Barclays? We shall find out in due course.
It started off with some quite effective knockabout, although the “put your hand up” routine is a little jaded now, but I thought “the right honourable Member for wherever it is” was unparliamentary insolence.Tagged in: david cameron, euro, euroscepticism, george osborne
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