Tories in a muddle on Europe (plus ça change)

by Stephen Tall on October 23, 2007

Tory leader David Cameron found himself on slippery terrain today when giving his monthly press conference to journalists. The question repeatedly asked was straightforward enough: the Tories have committed to holding a referendum on the EU reform treaty – will that commitment hold true if the treaty is ratified, and they should find themselves in government?

Mr Cameron’s answer? He had none, pleading the politician’s equivalent of the Fifth Amendment – that he won’t answer hypothetical questions. Here’s how the BBC’s Nick Robinson described Dave’s defence:

What do we want? Power to the people. When do we want it? Now but, er, not necessarily in the future… because that’s a hypothetical question. That, in summary, was David Cameron’s answer to repeated questioning at his news conference this morning.

Why the refusal to be drawn, you may ask. After all, when Jeremy Hunt, a Tory shadow cabinet member, was asked by Jonathan Dimbleby on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions last Friday, “Will the Conservative Party offer a retrospective referendum to approve or disapprove this particular treaty?” Mr Hunt’s answer was unequivocal: “Absolutely.”

So why has Dave come over all coy? Adam Boulton’s blog tells us why:

… the Conservative leader was repeatedly pressed to commit himself to a public vote even if the new treaty is ratified. That would mean repealing an existing treaty – a defacto renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU. This would doubtless delight some on the Tory right, but DC knows it would be crazy politics.

But for how long can Dave paper over the cracks in his party’s policy on Europe? While he tries to play safe and steer a mid-course, his party is constantly urging him to lurch starboard. As Steve Richards wrote in today’s Independent:

I recall the frenzy among some Conservatives in the build-up to the Amsterdam Treaty. It was so intense that a pathetic John Major pleaded with them during the 1997 election not to “tie my hands” in advance of the summit. Consequently, Tony Blair signed up to Amsterdam and the fuss soon subsided. The fuss will subside over this treaty by the time of the election. Yet it will not have done so in the minds of some Tory MPs. That is why Mr Cameron should be worried as he dances in apparent joyful harmony with voters and Rupert Murdoch.