United Kingdom: Tories are playing with the Brussels bomb

The British Prime minister David Cameron (photomontage)
The British Prime minister David Cameron (photomontage)
22 October 2012 – The Daily Telegraph (London)

Euroscepticism has gone mainstream in the British Conservative party, making a referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the Union increasingly likely. But do PM David Cameron and his EU-hostile ministers really know where they want to go? asks a Daily Telegraph columnist.

When David Cameron became Tory leader seven years ago, William Hague is said to have delivered a stern warning on the subject of Europe. Stay well away, advised Mr Hague, who knew from brutal personal experience as Conservative leader the damage it was capable of doing. Mr Hague added that Europe should be regarded as a bomb that could never be defused, yet might well go off at any moment. The wisest course was to leave well alone and hope for the best.

Mr Cameron took careful note. In opposition he did his best to avert trouble, and was almost excessively careful during the early period of government. Europe was the easiest part of the Coalition Agreement to negotiate, Mr Cameron having already abandoned his “cast-iron” guarantee of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. With only one admittedly very dramatic exception – last December’s treaty veto – his Government has concentrated on less perilous subjects.

It has suddenly become very clear that, seven years after the Foreign Secretary delivered his warning, the Hague doctrine has been abandoned. Over the past few days, though, without the knowledge, let alone assent of a bemused Mr Hague, a series of Cabinet ministers have articulated anti-European sentiments. First to do so was Theresa May, now being talked of as a potential Conservative leader. Last week, at party conference, the Home Secretary took on one of the most fundamental pieties of the European Union, when she promised to challenge the free movement of people between member states. Exactly how she proposed to do this was never explained.

Then on Tuesday, Mrs May was bashing Brussels again, this time raising doubts about the European Arrest Warrant. She has found an ally in Philip Hammond, the Defence Secretary, who called on Sunday for a “reset” of the relationship between Britain and Europe.

But the most meaningful contribution to the debate thus far has come from Michael Gove. The Education Secretary revealed at the weekend that, were a referendum to be held on the European Union tomorrow, he would vote for British withdrawal.

The importance of these remarks cannot be overstated. Although many people have criticised Europe, no senior British politician has actually dared to advocate a severance of relations since Michael Foot more than a quarter of a century ago. Ever since Mr Foot’s humiliation in the 1983 general election, there has been a consensus among all senior politicians in all three main parties that Britain’s membership of the EU, however irritating in practice, is a good thing in principle.

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