21 December 2015

Dear Eurosceptic top Tories: get off the fence, now


Dear Boris, Dear IDS, Dear Theresa (1), Dear Theresa (2), Dear Foreign Secretary, Dear Sajid, Dear Rob, Dear Chris, Dear Michael…

I don’t mean to be rude but what exactly are you all waiting for?

All of you – to differing extents – are on record, for wanting serious reform of the EU. Only last week, Mr Mayor, you noted that “this country could have a viable and exciting future outside the present EU arrangements. If we are going to stay, we need reform.” You expressed your unhappiness that Denmark could get special opt-outs from EU law but Britain, seemingly, could not. You’ve made other speeches seeking far-reaching reform of the EU. And Mr Business Secretary, you’re on record for believing that the “costs of EU outweigh benefits” and that “unless we get major reform, nothing’s off the table”. Yes, “major reform”. And, Mrs May, your electric party conference speech two months ago made it clear that you wanted to bring immigration under control. Everyone with their head screwed on the right way knows that that the goal of reducing net immigration to the tens of thousands is impossible with current freedom of movement rules. I could go on but I’m sure the Vote Leave campaign could list the big Eurosceptic noises made in the pre-election period by Messrs Gove and Hammond and Duncan Smith and so on.

What is clear is that even if David Cameron achieves every single one of his unambitious renegotiation ambitions the EU will be fundamentally unchanged. Net immigration will remain at historically high levels with the new national living wage proving to be at least as much of a pull factor for poorly-paid Romanians, Bulgarians and other Europeans as any reformed welfare system. We’ll still be paying £20 billion into the EU. We’ll still be outvoted on regulatory issues. The counter-productive Common Agricultural and Fisheries policies will persist. Moreover, it won’t just be Britain’s relationship with Brussels that will be fundamentally unchanged: the European Union will be fundamentally unchanged too. The over-regulation, the gridlocked institutions, and the lack of market reform – problems that appeared to exercise the prime minister in his 2013 Bloomberg speech – will all be unaddressed. In that speech David Cameron sounded the alarm:

“More of the same will not secure a long-term future for the Eurozone. More of the same will not see the European Union keeping pace with the new powerhouse economies. More of the same will not bring the European Union any closer to its citizens. More of the same will just produce more of the same – less competitiveness, less growth, fewer jobs.”

He was right then and nothing has changed. The EU is on the same downward path to “less competitiveness, less growth, fewer jobs.” The only thing that has changed is Mr Cameron’s willingness to put up with it. Unacceptable drift has become acceptable to him.

So, ministers, I respect your politeness and sense of loyalty to the PM. He’s asked all of you to say schtum until the negotiations are complete. But he’s not using this in-between time to stay neutral himself.  Key Downing Street and Tory HQ staffers have already joined the “BSE” campaign. He has wheeled out John Major to begin selling the idea that Britain faces “splendid isolation” if it left the EU. The same “splendid isolation” that the likes of Australia, Japan, Canada and other self-respecting, self-determining nations are just about managing to cope with. Do you think Barack Obama would have said what he said about Britain staying in the EU if the FCO and No10 hadn’t encouraged it?

Mr Cameron has clearly already made his decision about which side he’ll be campaigning on. We learnt that he presented himself “as a committed European” in his talks to other EU leaders on Thursday. By the time he graciously grants you the freedom to say that the EU hasn’t reformed in any significant way he’ll have helped the Stay-Inners to have amassed enormous resources and research for a Brexit vote that may only be months away.

We need you to come off the fence now. The earlier the Mayor who represents the City of London starts arguing that we can survive outside of the EU – just as the Square Mile flourished when the pound stayed out of the euro – the better. A Brexit-supporting Business Secretary would be a particularly significant asset for the idea that Britain could be more competitive if it wins the freedom to sign its own free trade agreements. And, Home Secretary, your intervention would be particularly welcome. You know that the immigration target cannot be achieved inside the EU. It’s time for you to say it soon. Arguments for leaving cannot be won at the last minute. They need to be made soon or the natural British preference for the status quo might prevail.

Those closest to Margaret Thatcher in her final years – Charles Moore, Robin Harris, Nile Gardiner – all believe that she would have supported leaving the EU. It’s not hard to think why she would have reached that conclusion. Tony Blair surrendered a large part of the EU rebate that she fought so hard to obtain. Under current conditions the EU is set to lose a third of its share of world trade. Britain cannot control its borders. The EU is striving to provide an alternative to NATO – that can only undermine an institution that she revered. The single market in goods that benefits the likes of Germany is completed but the single market in services that would benefit Britain is not. Unelected judges, central bankers and Brussels bureaucrats are increasingly powerful. None of this is set to change as part of Mr Cameron’s renegotiation. None of it.

Over to you ministers.

Oh! And Happy Christmas, Tim

PS And I know this would never cross any of your minds but 71% of Tory Party members favour leaving the EU. Only 24% want to remain. Even if Britain votes to stay in the EU, Tory supporters could well vote to leave. There’s every chance that a Brexit supporter will do very well in the post-Cameron leadership election. We certainly need to avoid a scenario where Tory ministers who once talked big about reform meekly accept David Cameron’s non-renegotiation. Such meekness would present Ukip with huge political opportunities. It would be helpful if we avoided that.

Tim Montgomerie is a columnist for the The Times, a Senior Fellow at Legatum Institute and co-founder of the new website The Good Right. His “reform of capitalism” report for the Legatum Institute was published on 4th November.