Whilst David Cameron is away, negotiating with Barack Obama on a vital trade agreement between the EU and the US, members of his cabinet have joined backbenchers in tabling an amendment to the Queen’s speech committing them to an EU referendum, undermining the trade agreement potentially worth £10 billion to the UK economy.
The Independent newspaper yesterday reported that there is no precedent in modern politics for members of a governing party, voting for a motion which criticises their own Queen’s speech. It is truly farcical. In what we can only conclude is an orchestrated move, we have had a week of Tory Grandees followed by serving cabinet ministers calling for Britain to quit the EU. This whole saga is not, as we know, only about Europe. Attacking Europe has become a proxy for attacking David Cameron who most Tories now feel cannot win the next general election. So while the Prime Minister is in the US for talks with Barack Obama on a US/EU trade agreement (a deal he told the Wall Street Journal today could be worth as much as £10b for the UK economy) his most senior ministers are sending out a message to the global business community that Britain won’t be around to benefit from that trade deal. What must Obama think? And how weak is a Prime Minister who cannot rely on his own Ministers to support the policies set out in their own Government’s Queen’s speech?
But we also need a lot more scrutiny of the motives of the Eurosceptics. Are they anti-European for patriotic reasons? I think not. They are anti-EU because of their rightwing views. What they most dislike about the EU are European wide laws which protect us in the workplace and which regulate big business and the banks. Does the public know that quitting the EU jeopardises their right to 4 weeks paid holiday or right to sick pay if they work part time because the Tories would vote against these laws in Westminster? Or that the UK government alone opposed EU laws to cap banker’s bonuses? And as for UKIP, here we have a party of the Right which opposes the minimum wage and whose local MEP Godfrey Bloom wants to scrap the ‘monster’ that is the NHS whilst saying ‘no self-respecting small businessman with a brain in the right place would employ a lady of child-baring age’.
Ed Miliband this weekend made it clear that “our national interest lies in staying in the European Union and working for the changes that will make it work better for Britain” adding “It is wrong now to commit to an in/out referendum and have four years of uncertainty and a ‘closed for business’ sign above our country.”
Ed is absolutely right. He is also right that the Government should be focusing its attention on jobs and the economy, where the Queens speech was all but silent.
If the Tory turmoil on Europe this week were simply internal backstabbing, we could leave them to it. However it is also affecting business confidence and the UK’s prospects for recovery. It’s time to take them on.