While Nick Clegg spent the weekend struggling to explain David Cameron’s use of the UK veto in Brussels to a hostile Liberal Democrat audience, the prime minister could rely on a much warmer welcome from fellow Conservatives as he prepared for Monday’s parliamentary address on the summit negotiations.
Buoyed by the rapturous welcome of backbenchers in Chequers, his country retreat, at a dinner on Friday, Mr Cameron was expected to reiterate his earlier claims he had “doggedly” rebutted calls to join a treaty that was not in the British national interest.
John Redwood, Tory eurosceptic, was one of many backbenchers breathing a sigh of relief at the news. “I feel liberated this morning after all this and we have got some hope now,” he told the Financial Times on Sunday. “[The veto] now opens up the bigger issue of what kind of relationship can we and should we have with this new, emerging country called euroland.”
Anti-European backbenchers were united in welcoming the move, but disagreed over when and whether this would reopen calls for a referendum – a threat headed off in October despite 81 Tory rebels voting against the government.
Mark Pritchard, a leading Tory eurosceptic, told the FT that a referendum within the current parliament would become likely as the group of 26 European Union members left to form an inter-governmental treaty on fiscal union grew in confidence.
“Over time, the new German-Franco dominated EU inner-bloc will seek to advantage themselves,” Mr Pritchard said.
“This will lead to UK domestic public and political opinion hardening and add to the demands for a referendum.”
However Andrea Leadsom MP – a founding member of the Fresh Start project, which seeks to help re-broker the UK’s relationship with Brussels – said there was no point in having a referendum until the government had worked out its priorities for a new contract with Europe. She added that a referendum would be difficult in the current situation as the UK may yet win some concessions from the 26-member bloc.
“That was the first salvo and [President Sarkozy] came to that meeting to say no to whatever Cameron would suggest, he wanted to show us up as completely selfish and not European . . . But it’s totally premature to suggest the negotiations are over. The fat lady is far from singing”.
Whether or not Mr Cameron does eventually return to Brussels for another bruising encounter, the prime minister’s Chequers dinner on Friday, widely reported as a victory celebration for leading eurosceptics including the Union Jack-waving Andrew Rosindell, was not intended as such. Mr Cameron had expected to strike a deal that might have been very unpopular with his backbenchers.
Instead of drinking champagne to celebrate his veto, Mr Cameron might well, if all had gone according to plan, have been explaining to Mr Rosindell and gloomy colleagues why he had signed up to a new treaty. His hoped-for concessions for the City would not have placated some Tory MPs who wanted repatriation of powers and a referendum on the EU.
Brussels bureaucrats believe the influence of Mr Cameron’s backbenchers was vital in guaranteeing an impasse at last week’s summit, because they had put the prime minister in a near-impossible position.
“Cameron couldn’t have presented his detailed proposals for the City in advance because they would have [been] leaked,” said one senior Brussels official. “The Tory right would have been furious that he wasn’t demanding more.”
To ensure he did not arrive in Brussels with a mutiny on his hands, Mr Cameron only handed his plan to protect the City to José Manuel Barroso – European Commission president and a potential ally – on the morning of the summit.
Other delegations found out even later, although the Treasury insists that some capitals were briefed in advance.