The Tory Fresh Start Group is based on smoke and mirrors

Labour Party

Ever moreTories in Westminster are becoming deeply confused about the EU. Surely one of the most confused is back-bencher Andrea Leadsom, leading light of the Fresh Start Group of 100 or so Tory MPs.

The interestingly named Fresh Start Group brings together equally confused Tory back-benchers, many of whom have for quite a while now been working out what this country should seek from a renegotiation of British EU membership. What would agricultural policy, regional policy, social policy and the rest look like, if the Conservative euro-reformers had their way?

What indeed? But the key question here is not what these policies would look like but rather “if the Conservative euro-reformers had their way”.The salient and irrefutable point is that these “euro-reformers” quite simply cannot deliver. Changes to any EU treaty need agreement from all 27 member states. The confused Tory MPs have undeniably worked hard on what used to be called “repatriation of powers”. Sadly for them their labour amounts to nothing more than smoke and mirrors. The British government quite simply does not have control over the EU in the way the confused Tories are claiming.

At the risk of peddling sour grapes, I havehad the experience on more occasions than I care to remember of being made cruelly aware of the lack of understanding of the European Union by British elected representatives. The BBC reported that Mrs Leadsom has taken a swipe at Britain’s representatives in Europe, both officials and elected MEPs, for “going native” – and even speaking with a “weird half French, half German accent”. Rather than insulting her colleagues, Mrs Leadsom would do better to get to grips with the EU if she intends to pontificate on UK membership.

There were, of course, those in the recent debate in Westminster Hall led by Mrs Leadsom who agreed with my contention that Britain would not get what it wanted. Most of them were, inevitably, arch-Eurosceptics such as veteran Maastricht rebel Bill Cash, who wish to leave the European Union. This line is at least honest, if misguided.

The confused Tories who believe EU reform will magically happen because the UK wants it, seem to think the current crisis gives Britain a lot of leverage. Moreover, since the EU needs Britain more than Britain needed the EU, there is plenty of scope for negotiation. In your dreams is all I have to say.

There was, however, some useful tactical advice during the Leadsom debate from the Conservative former cabinet minister, Peter Lilley, who suggested Britain should approach rolling back EU powers in the same way as the European Commission approached extending them – with salami tactics. But he also thought the key battle would be to overturn the acquis, the long-standing doctrine that once the EU acquired competence over a policy area, it was never relinquished. If Britain could establish a precedent for clawing back powers, that would enable more powers to be repatriated in future.

At least in Peter Lilley there seems to be one less confused Conservative. Yet even he does not address the issue that the 26 other EU member states do not want to overturn the acquis which seem to work well for everyone except the UK unfer the current government.

In the event, there were some interesting ideas for reforming the way the Westminster Parliament deals with EU issues – a specialised EU question time and far stronger scrutiny of European directives were two very good proposals. More involvement in EU matters by British MPs and members of the House of Lords is an excellent idea to be welcomed whichever political party introduces it.