Omicron. How Starmer is swelling the number of today’s Conservative rebels.

14 Dec

When a revolt of Government backbenchers swells, the Leader of the Opposition must choose: is he to be a John Smith or a William Hague?

First, Smith

In 1993, John Major’s administration was attempting to steer its Bill to enshrine the Maastricht Treaty into domestic law through the Commons.

John Smith sought tactical opportunities to vote down its provisions (forcing a vote on confidence on one occasion in the wake of having done so).

This had the plus, for Labour, of defeating the Government and weakening its standing, but the minus of disincentivising Conservative backbenchers to oppose Major.

For after all, one doesn’t like voting with the Labour Party if one is a Tory backbencher.

Next, Hague.

In 1997, Tony Blair’s newly-elected Labour administration to proposed a cut in the payments of some benefits to lone parents who were new claimants.

Hague decided to vote with the Government – a decision presumably informed by not having the numbers to defeat it were the Conservatives to join with Labour rebels.

But his decision had the effect of maximising the Labour revolt, as horror at the prospect of voting with the Tories swelled the ranks of the rebels.

Furthermore, a Minister and four junior members of the Government resigned in protest.

Which takes us to Starmer.

As I write, the Labour leader is set to be a Hague rather than a Smith.  He seems willing to shun the tactical gain of defeating the Government in order to win the strategic one of maximising Tory rebellion.

This would cover Starmer’s bases.  He is unwilling to alientate pro-lockdown voters, who comprise much of Labour’s base: public sector workers who are relatively insulated against the effect of restrictions.

Furthermore, he is offering the Conservative rebels a risk-free option.  Since there is no prospect of today’s measures being defeated, they are insulated against consequences that might follow their defeat.

For in the event of the NHS being unable to cope with Omicron, the Government will get the blame – not the rebels.

The latter now also appear to have strength in numbers.

Once a critical mass of backbenchers revolt, as Theresa May kept finding out when she put her Withdrawal Agreement to the Commons, revolt gathers its own momentum.

Davis says the Conservative Party is going to have to have a big argument about economic policy

4 Oct

For David Davis having the necessary argument is more than a duty: it is a pleasure. “We’re going to have to have a big argument within the Conservative Party about economic policy,” he said as he took questions from an audience which filled the ConHome tent.

Davis pointed out that Margaret Thatcher was often unpopular at this stage in a Parliament: “The question we should ask is whether what we do now is going to deliver a good outcome in two years’ time.”

So we should be asking whether raising National Insurance will deliver more jobs or fewer in two years’ time: “I worry about the National Insurance increase. I worry about the Corporation Tax increase.”

Not that Davis falls for the idea that some perfect policy exists.

When asked whether he himself has made mistakes, he joked for a moment that he had made none, but then went on: “We all make mistakes. I don’t criticise the Government for making mistakes.”

He said that what we need are not great men but great institutions: “Great institutions protect you from big mistakes.”

And later: “Good institutions do not deliver perfection, they deliver correction.”

He instanced the slave trade, For the whole of the seventeenth century “we had a terrible record on slavery”. But in 1807, Parliament changed its mind, and decided to abolish the Atlantic slave trade, which was what over the next 60 years the Royal Navy managed to achieve, displaying “heroism on a grand scale”:

“It’s the greatest ethical foreign policy and the most expensive in the world ever.”

In 1968, when student riots erupted at the Sorbonne in Paris, David Davis was in his first year at Warwick University: “I turned out to be the only person arguing against the riots.”

He became Chairman of that nursery of talent, the Federation of Conservative Students, in which capacity he saw Ted Heath four times a year, and Margaret Thatcher, then Education Secretary, ten times a year.

Britain seemed condemned to decline, but when Thatcher became leader she said, “Our job is to reverse the decline.” Davis recalled how “incredibly controversial” the 1981 Budget had been.

He entered Parliament in 1987 and soon found himself defending the Maastricht Treaty. This was not the fight he wanted to have: it was a fight that could not be avoided.

He thought the treaty was “terrible”, but that if John Major’s Government fell, Labour would get in and go much further with European integration, so there was “no right answer outcome”.

At this point he quoted David Frost’s observation earlier in the day:

“All history, all experience, shows that democratic countries with free economies, which let people keep the money they have earned, make their own decisions, and manage their own lives, are not just richer but also happier and more admired by others.”

“That’s actually a fantastic paragraph,” Davis said. “I’d stick it on the wall at home. Our history is the history of freedom.”

And that freedom includes the freedom to rebel when you conclude that the Government is getting something wrong. He was interviewed by Ryan Henson, Chief Executive Officer of the Coalition for Global Prosperity, which “brings together political, military, business and faith leaders” to make the case for “an effective development budget”.

Davis was a leading figure in the recent Tory rebellion against cuts in the international development budget, which he believed was heading for success: “We thought we had 50 [MPs] – it evaporated – we probably need 70 next time.”

He added that “you’ve got to move the public as well as the Government,” who can then put pressure on their MPs.

When asked about his back story, as the son of a single mother on a council estate, Davis objected:

“It’s become fashionable to talk about your back story. The press are gullible about it. They believe Angela Rayner to be a normal member of the working class.”

Lee Rotherham: Europe’s new radical alliance is brittle, but offers the EU an important warning

15 Jul

Dr Lee Rotherham is a member of the advisory board of Kids Count.

In a recent piece on this site, Garvan Walshe pondered the development of a new continental Eurosceptic coalition. This “rassemblement des patriotes” brings together the parties of Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orban, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski among others. The phenomenon serves as a marker not only of the EU’s past mistakes, but also its future ones.

As the piece noted, it is not a simple alliance nor a very deep one. It excludes a number of Eurosceptic players, most notably the Czech ODS and some key Scandinavians. The definition of “Euroscepticism” among signatories is elastic: in addition to the Italian contingent navigating a coalition government, Le Pen’s own Rassemblement National accepts the Euro and rejects Frexit. The fact that Orban, having been forced out of the EPP, is now jumping into a new grouping he originally turned down in 2019 certainly demonstrates an element of instability.

Yet the simple fact of this arrangement is a milestone. It reminds one of the quote attributed to a continental diplomat at the time of Maastricht that, “If the British did not exist, we would have to invent them.” After Brexit, that is precisely what is happening.

To explain why, we need to first understand where the impetus to generate a group comes from. It is an institutional response to an institutional problem.

European bodies in recent years have increasingly formalised political alliances for administrative purposes. Even within the Council of Europe, you may recall several years back how United Russia formally sitting alongside the Conservatives suddenly became an issue.

Within the EU this has become very developed. Political groups have a composite budget and employ staff (on healthy wages) for policy drafting, committee work, negotiations with counterparts, and generating the whip.

Group size determines budget share, speaking time, share of posts and committee places, PR money for MEP freebies, and the very significant think tank money for the likes of the Wilfried Martens Centre. It also guarantees a seat at the Conference of Presidents running EP business. Being able to generate a group is therefore important, and the bigger the better, though the dynamic limits are evident if we remember Conservative membership of the EPP.

There is a threshold for setting up a group. Currently, 23 MEPs are needed, and at least one-quarter of the member states must be represented. Look back to my 1998 edition of the Vademecum though, and it’s 29 from one member state, 23 from two, 18 from three or 14 from four or more.

Why this jump to get members from at least seven countries? In large part, it was ruthless cynicism. It was assumed by the main groups that it would difficult for Eurosceptic groups to reach that threshold given both ideological differences and the lack of pan-Europeanism. They weren’t wrong.

The net result was four Eurosceptic blocs. There was a “soft Eurosceptic” element in the ED subsumed in the EPP, emerging again to become the ECR. There was the “hard Eurosceptic” group (variously EdN, EDD, Ind/Dem), dependent on small MEP delegations and ever hovering on dissolution.

Then there were the small group of Left/Green “Europe is a capitalist plot” Eurosceptics, counterpoised with their fellow Left/Greens who saw the EU as a mechanism to smash big industry. That left the “political untouchables” often sitting as the ragtag leftover Non-Inscrits (an attempt to formalise this as a group was defeated in the courts).

This then generated an EU political scene dominated by ideologically-overlapping Centre Left and Centre Right groups, largely operating in a state of formalised compromise; and on the edges a marginalised and divided Eurosceptic opposition, obliged to make its appeal directly to the electorate.

With Brexit though the group maths has changed, and I would suggest it is generating contradictory imperatives. Strategically, it encourages radical parties to soften in order to cooperate internationally; but there is also a competing domestic pull to harden their positions more, to secure support among increasingly alienated social conservatives at home. It is not yet clear which force will win out; following how Estonia’s new EKRE party plays out will perhaps be an early pointer.

Set in the context of group politics, the arrival of this new “rassemblement des patriotes” correspondingly suggests three significant conclusions.

First, it is significant that the named trigger was the Conference on the Future of Europe – basically a second Convention on the Future of Europe, which last time round offered up an EU Constitution. The EU is already repeating the same mistakes it made before, anticipating more integration rather than questioning assumptions and remembering lost referenda.

So far the ECR Eurosceptics around veteran MEP Jan Zahradil have been doing the running in the fightback. This new group though is now giving notice that it intends a massive organised pile-on as well. Expect the Conference to heat up and its findings to generate a political crisis next year, and quite possibly several.

Second, it’s clear there are enduring splits among Eurosceptics about who is and who isn’t an appropriate partner. Sharing a broad opposition to EU integration is still not enough. It is nevertheless a fact that parts of “New Europe” are very socially conservative and reject the EU’s direction both conceptually and emotionally.

This social conservatism also happens to be shared with large parts of Russian society. It is hardly surprising in that context if Putin’s domestic politics give him a certain specific appeal, not as a border revanchist but as someone who dares push back against a Western “policy consensus gone wrong”.

Third, we can predict that EU politicians will botch their response. Brussels players too lazily conflate extremism with populism, and populism with popularity. Experience suggests that this is often down to a combination of a lack of intellectual curiosity plus short-term political advantage.

But attempts to marginalise, delegitimise and humiliate only serve to polarise by disenfranchising. Even a more tempered approach that ignores the core grievances still produces asymmetric and anti-establishment figures in response, from Beppe Grillo to now Slavi Trifonov in Bulgaria.

This is certainly not an endorsement of any political party’s stance: it is simply a warning that serious EU policy failures especially over immigration and Eurozone management need to be fixed and not rendered taboo. Liberal campaigners also need to recognise that the European Courts are a counterproductive mechanism for pursuing major social change by lawfare.

This new radical alliance (for want of a better term) is indeed brittle. It is uncemented, frangible, and perhaps ephemeral. But if Brussels commuters physically need to see an early warning sign that any move to grab more EU powers next year is going to end badly, then this is it, plastered all over a billboard.

Daniel Hannan: A tribute to Jens-Peter Bonde. A devastatingly able campaigner and giant of the Eurosceptic movement.

14 Apr

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

A giant of the Eurosceptic movement died last week, unreported and largely unremarked. Jens-Peter Bonde, who spent 29 years in the European Parliament and was, for much of that time, the closest thing it had to a Leader of the Opposition, passed away at his home near Copenhagen, aged 73.

There has, of course, been a more newsworthy death grabbing our attention. But, even without the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh, we would not have heard much about the cheerful, detail-obsessed Danish campaigner.

This is partly because Brexit has short-circuited the arguments about the decentralisation of power. I have written more than my share of papers on how a looser, more flexible EU might have worked. But all that is over now. Eurocrats responded to Britain’s withdrawal by pushing ahead with the integrationist schemes that had previously been held up by our veto – tax harmonisation, an EU army, the lot. A country can either get with that programme or leave. A Europe of nations is no longer on the agenda, if ever it was.

There is another reason, though, that Bonde faded from public consciousness. He might have been the moving spirit behind the Euro-critical movement, but he does not fit the popular image of the anti-Brussels campaigner. Thoughtful, polite and Left-of-Centre, he was the Eurosceptic whom federalists found it hardest to dislike. He worked on various projects with Romano Prodi, Guy Verhofstadt and Jean-Claude Juncker, who remarked on hearing of Bonde’s death that their clashes over the burgeoning EU budget “didn’t take away from the friendship I had with him”.

Bonde began as a revolutionary and ended as a reformer. He had campaigned against EEC membership in Denmark’s referendum in 1972 – a campaign at that time dominated, like its British equivalent, by the Bennite Left – and was elected as an MEP for the People’s Movement Against the EEC in 1979. After Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty in June 1992, he established the June Movement, reaching out to those Danes who had been happy enough with the EEC, but who disliked the new push for political and economic amalgamation.

That made him the de facto head of something that had not existed until that moment: a Europe-wide anti-federalist movement. As the leader of the tiny Eurosceptic bloc in Brussels, Bonde had the time and the resources to co-ordinate the efforts of new allies: Philippe de Villiers’ souverainiste movement in France, the successors to the various Scandinavian “No” campaigns from 1994 and, in Britain, Jimmy Goldsmith’s Referendum Party and Alan Sked’s UKIP.

I remember asking him, when I was first elected in 1999, whether he thought it was acceptable to use EU money that way. Then, as now, the European Parliament made resources available to individual MEPs and their parties for political projects. The idea, of course, was that the moolah would translate into greater support for the EU. But there was no way to draw up the rules so as explicitly to exclude Eurosceptics. Did he think it was okay to finance his projects with Brussels cash?

“I used to wonder the same thing when I arrived here 20 years ago, Daniel. In the end, I asked a man who had been one of my mentors. He was a partisan leader in the war, and he told me, ‘Jens-Peter, when we siphoned gas off German vehicles during the occupation, it wasn’t an act of theft – it was an act of legitimate resistance.’”

I laughed out loud at the mental picture the mild-mannered, bespectacled Bonde stealing petrol by moonlight. In truth, by then, he was already more interested in making the EU less intrusive than in taking his country out of it. But he remained a devastatingly able campaigner.

The following year, he and I worked together on the “No” campaign in Denmark’s single currency referendum. We started more than 20 points behind in the polls, but Bonde knew how to appeal to waverers. He block-booked advertising space with bus companies all over the country. A week before polling day, a question appeared on the side of almost every Danish bus: “Do you know enough to abolish the Crown forever yet?” It was the “yet” that did it, rallying undecideds to the status quo and carrying us to a surprise victory.

For all that they found him personally agreeable, the EU’s leaders could not forgive such behaviour. Had they been a bit cleverer, they would have treated Bonde and his allies as a kind of loyal opposition, engaging with his ideas on democracy and transparency, and using his presence to show that the EU was not an intolerant monolith. But, subject to their federalist purity-spiral, they could never bring themselves to do it.

As the EU pushed ahead with deeper and deeper union – Maastricht was followed by Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon – the idea of devolving power fell away, leaving withdrawal as the only alternative. Bonde was replaced by Nigel Farage as leader of his group and, more broadly, as the voice of Euroscepticism. While he was shifting from secessionism to constructive criticism, the Eurosceptic movement was going the other way.

Bonde’s idea of a Europe of nations now survives only as a counterfactual, a might-have-been, like Gladstone’s Home Rule proposals or Pitt the Elder’s plan to conciliate America. The EU’s leaders may soon wish they had taken the well-mannered Dane more seriously.

Simon Richards: Almost 15 years ago, I helped to set up Better Off Out. This deal isn’t perfect – but it delivers what we campaigned for.

28 Dec

Simon Richards was CEO of The Freedom Association until June 2020, and a co-founder of the Better Off Out campaign in 2006. He is now working on plans to help promote the record and reputation of Margaret Thatcher.

Three o’clock in the afternoon still has a resonance for the millions who follow football more than I do – not least on a Boxing Day Bank Holiday. For me, it is a sacred time on just two days of the year: Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

So I was incandescent when, following a ridiculously lengthy delay even by his own standards, Boris Johnson’s press conference clashed with that immovable highlight of Christmas Eve, the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge.

It could have been even worse: had he held it at the same time the following day, he might have found himself even lower down the Queen’s Christmas card list than Tony Blair. To add insult to injury, the Prime Minister apologised, not for clashing with the world’s best-loved carol service, but for ‘disturbing Cars Three’, an American computer-animated film which, it transpired, he had not actually interrupted at all.

A far more substantial objection to Johnson’s deal is that its timing allows Parliament just a single day to debate it. How convenient for the Government! So the truth is that, whatever you or I might think of it, this deal is, if you will pardon my French, a fait accompli – an accomplished fact; a done deal.

Call it what you will, nothing is going to stop it now. Even were there adequate time to discuss this massive document, Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition, true to form, would provide no opposition at all. That, as usual, is left to those Conservative Party backbenchers who, from the fight over the Maastricht Treaty onwards, have served as an awkward squad, carrying out, without official recognition or pay, the work that the Labour Party has long neglected even to attempt to do.

Are important aspects of this deal unsatisfactory for the United Kingdom? Of course they are! There is no doubt that the UK made considerable concessions on fishing, but the key issue, of sovereignty over British waters, was upheld. Given the immense damage that the EU and its Common Fisheries Policy have done to the British fishing industry, it will be years before our fishermen are in a position to take full advantage of regaining control over our waters, so it was a sensible move by Lord Frost and the Government to give ground (or should that be water?) in that area.

After all, in any negotiation there have to be areas where concessions must be made. The important question is “will our fishing industry be in a better position than before?” and the answer to that can only be “yes” – granted that it would be difficult to worsen its current state.

If the Labour Party’s ‘thin deal’ criticisms of the deal are feeble, then the SNP’s attack on the fishing deal elevates political dishonesty to a new level even by its own standards. It has never stood up for Scotland’s fishing industry and its policy of independence, accompanied by an application to join the EU, could only be achieved by sacrificing that industry once again.

The truth is that the Prime Minister’s deal has shot Sturgeon’s fox, or, as one ought perhaps to say around Boxing Day, clubbed it to death. Nothing that Johnson came back with from Brussels was ever going to meet with the approval of Ian Blackford, Scotland’s very own Mr Potato Head himself. His cry of, ‘the potato-seed industry, the potato-seed industry, my kingdom for the potato-seed industry’ is hardly likely to match William Wallace as a call to battle.

There isn’t room here to go into all the arrangements covered in this vast set of agreements. Others such as Bill Cash, Martin Howe and Lee Rotherham are better able to do that than I am – and I trust their judgement. Not only can no deal be perfect, but we should not seek such perfection. For a deal of this nature to be successful – and to stick – it needs broadly to satisfy both sides. If it only satisfies one, it will be unacceptable to the other.

Bismarck was wise enough to realise that he had been wrong to agree to Prussia grabbing Alsace and Lorraine from France in the Treaty of Frankfurt in 1871. It ensured that France was consumed by a desire for revenge, which led inexorably to two world wars. A deafening cacophony of claims from the EU side that it had got the better of the Brits was only to be expected, but, save for the inevitable French Government minister or two with an eye to bolstering Emmanuel Macron’s popularity, such claims have been conspicuous by their absence.

Similarly, on this side of the Channel, screams of betrayal from Brexiteers have been more like squeaks. Back in 2006, along with Mark Wallace of this parish and others, I helped set up the Better Off Out campaign, to promote the case that the UK would indeed be Better Off Out of the EU.

Had you asked me then whether I would have regarded the terms of this Christmas Eve Agreement as acceptable, I would have replied, in the style of the last British Prime Minister successfully to defend British interests in Europe, ‘Yes! Yes! Yes!’ It was good to hear the Prime Minister cite Margaret Thatcher’s famous Bruges speech as an inspiration and a turning point. She set out an updated version of De Gaulle’s ‘Europe of Nations’. The EU would have been well advised to have taken heed of her advice, but chose to plough on regardless with its project of a United States of Europe.

Later, forcing through the Maastricht Treaty, John Major, who has been uncharacteristically quiet in recent days, took to the mantra that Britain was ‘at the heart of Europe’. Only somebody ignorant of both geography and history could have insisted on such an obvious falsehood.

The agreement that Johnson has obtained rights the wrongs inflicted by Major and a succession of Europhile Prime Ministers. It restores to the United Kingdom the freedom and independence that made it great, retaining its close and friendly links with its friends and neighbours on the continent whilst re-establishing its worldwide vision. I started by mentioning football.

To conclude, were this a football match it would have been 3-0 to the EU at half-time, with three own goals scored by Theresa May and her hapless team. David Frost has been Britain’s champion, achieving a great result for his country against all the odds, with a good deal of British pluck. Now it only remains for one injustice to be put to right: Boris, please give Nigel Farage the knighthood that he deserves.