Eurosceptics keeping a beady eye on Cameron
Just how much trouble would David Cameron have been in if he had come back from Brussels in December without concessions for the City but signing up to be part of the treaty negotiations? It’s a question Paul Waugh raised way back when it was all kicking off and, bringing slowly up the rear, I’ve been chatting to quite a few Tory MPs to see, now the knuckle dusters are back in the pockets, how bad it might’ve got.
There was a real air of menace around David Cameron’s last Prime Minister’s Questions before he set off for Brussels – Tory MPs, one after another, taking the opportunity to stiffen his sinews with varying degrees of respect. But behind the scenes, David Cameron’s team was getting some very stark warnings of a serious potential uprising if he came home empty-handed. Talking about it today, one Tory MP said: “It would’ve been Armageddon.” Several Tory MPs told me they thought that many letters would’ve gone to Graham Brady, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers, requesting a leadership contest. Under the leadership rules, if 15% of Tory MPs or 45 MPs in the current Commons write to the ’22 Chairman it triggers a contest.
One MP told me that he thought there were “twenty something” ready to write such a letter back in December. Another said he thought it was “more like thirty something.” One MP said: “By Easter you would’ve had enough letters” – i.e. 45. We can’t know because it never got to the level of a coordinated conspiracy plan agreed amongst committed MPs. But I was told that the MPs felt they had communicated to the whips before the EU summit that the “safety catch was off” and “people said this really could happen.”
All this matters because it tells you something about the pressure David Cameron might’ve felt under when he went to Brussels. Were some in that delegation relaxed if not keen on deploying the veto? What was William Hague’s role on the night (the only Foreign Secretary from 27 countries present to join the delegations in the building that night). And it tells you something about the continuing pressure David Cameron is under as the EU decides where to go from here and the PM navigates a course that tries to make Britain’s voice heard without hacking off his own troops. As two Tory MPs said today, they are still watching the Prime Minister “like hawks”, and his room for manouevre (and for pleasing Nick Clegg) looks very limited.
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