With two months to go until the European elections, the leaders of the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party went head-to-head tonight in a live televised debate on the issue of Britain’s membership of the EU. This was the FT’s live coverage. By Kiran Stacey
20.50 Well there we have it. A clear win for Nigel Farage in the first Europe debate, if not necessarily for those who want the UK to leave the EU. Both sides will try to claim victory in the coming days though – and the real test will come on May 22 at the European elections.
The comments of Stanley Johnson about the Tory leadership prospects of his son Boris in this morning’s papers have made something of a stir. The London mayor’s father was quoted in the FT and the Guardian saying the Tories should change their leadership rules to allow Boris to run even if he wasn’t an MP at the time, a proposal that has been attacked by many in the party.
But it is Stanley’s comments on Boris’ views on Europe that might have a more long-term effect on his son’s leadership credentials. He told an audience of pro-European Tories (of which he is one):
Boris is a very good European, I can tell you that.
Ed Miliband’s op-ed for the FT today on Europe has finally crystallised what each of the parties’ European position will be going into next year’s election. But anyone listening to Douglas Alexander, the shadow foreign secretary on the Today programme this morning would be forgiven for not understanding exactly what Labour’s position is. This is what he said:
The next Labour government will legislate for a lock that guarantees there cannot be a transfer of power from Britain to the European Union in the future without that in/out referendum. It’s an agenda for reform in Europe, not immediate exit from Europe.
So what does this mean, and how does it compare to the other two parties?
It was the Americans who first broke ranks. Soon after David Cameron announced in January that he wanted to have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2017 (if he is elected prime minister), the US declared its opposition to the UK leaving. In remarkably frank words for a diplomat, a senior American official told reporters:
We have a growing relationship with the EU as an institution, which has an increasing voice in the world, and we want to see a strong British voice in that EU. That is in America’s interests. We welcome an outward-looking EU with Britain in it.
Since then, the Japanese have also weighed in on the Americans’ side. In evidence submitted to the first round of the government’s review of EU powers, Japan warns that as many as 130,000 jobs could be at risk if the UK does leave the union. In a memo to the foreign office, the Japanese government said:
As a fellow hack remarked to me on the way out of the Commons chamber after PMQs this week, imagine if it had been the other way round.
Imagine that David Cameron had not been in New York and had been taking prime minister’s questions instead of Nick Clegg, his deputy. And imagine that Lib Dem after Lib Dem – five in total – had stood up to attack the prime minister over their pet project – let’s say the mansion tax, for example. What would have happened?
Almost undoubtedly, there would have been fury on the Tory benches. Cameron would probably have told Clegg to get his troops in line and Conservative backbenchers would have complained quite fairly that the government agenda was being derailed by something that only one side really cared about.
The Tories have just published their draft EU referendum bill. Most of it is fairly meaningless technicalities. But the proposed wording is interesting. The party plans to ask voters:
Do you think that the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union?
Referendum questions are usually a source of tense, if technical political debate. The two things do watch out for are:
It was yesterday afternoon while we were about to board a flight from Andrews Air Base in Washington that the pack of journalists following the prime minister were suddenly told to gather for a briefing.
“You’re going to want to hear this,” said a senior Tory source.
He was not wrong. The breaking news – under embargo for 10pm UK time – was that David Cameron had decided after all to publish draft legislation that would enshrine the 2017 EU referendum in law.
The idea must have seemed a political masterstroke: to nip in the bud the latest uprising of Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers and PPSs (those barely-noticed ministerial bag carriers who occasionally make news by resigning.)
The Cameron team were aware, however, that the story would eclipse the
Ukip leader Nigel Farage has arrived. His invitation to dinner with Rupert Murdoch on Tuesday was almost as much of a sign of his growing political influence as the eurosceptic party’s strong showing in the Eastleigh by-election last week.
Farage has confirmed he did indeed dine with the media mogul at Murdoch’s London flat but has refused to give any clues about what was said. However, the Daily Telegraph writes he suggested he would form an electoral pact with the Conservatives if Cameron stepped down.
I’ve updated this post at the bottom in light of this afternoon’s parliamentary debate on the issue.
As the Tories contemplate the fallout from coming third in the Eastleigh byelection, different ministers have been floating different ideas for recapturing the votes lost to Ukip. One such idea is banning newly-arrived migrants from accessing certain benefits and NHS services.
Polls suggest immigration is a major reason for voters choosing Ukip, and Conservatives worry that trend will only accelerate when limits on movement from Bulgaria and Romania to elsewhere in the EU are removed.
A cabinet sub-committee has been convened to look into the policy options, but in the face of EU rules forbidding discrimination between citizens of different European countries, is there anything they can do, or is this empty populist rhetoric?
Jeremy Forrest, the teacher extradited from France last year
We revealed this morning that the first battle that Nick Clegg intends to pick in the coalition after his party’s victory in Eastleigh is over the European arrest warrant.
The EAW is one of a number of measures involved in the European crime and justice framework, which the Tories want to leave altogether. The prime minister has won plaudits among his own party for saying he would pull out of the 130 measures agreed among EU countries, but he needs the support of his coalition partners to do so, as it must go to a vote in the Commons.
Negotiations between the two parties are being led by Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin, and according to sources close to the talks, have pretty much broken down altogether.
David Cameron’s European strategy hinges on the idea that he will be able to repatriate powers from Brussels to Westminster, before offering voters a choice between the new settlement and leaving the EU altogether in a referendum.
But the question that remains to be answered is exactly how much will other European countries be willing bend to Britain’s demands for such repatriation? Will the threat of Britain leaving be enough to persuade them to cooperate, or will they be so irritated by the way in which Cameron is going about his project that they happily wave goodbye to the UK?
In a speech this morning in Germany, the German president made it clear that he does not want to see the UK simply pack its bags and leave. Speaking from his Schloss Bellevue, his official residence, Joachim Gauck said:
As Andrew Mitchell begins to emerge from the shadows of the “plebgate” row, talk has turned to whether he could be brought back into the cabinet, or perhaps be given another plum government job.
The latest talk is that the former chief whip is one of two candidates (alongside Peter Lilley) under consideration to become the UK’s next EU commissioner when Cathy Ashton steps down next year.
Mitchell has not said anything in public about whether he would want to take the job. But his comment piece in this morning’s FT gives us some idea about what kind of agenda he would pursue if he was selected.