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The Tory Rebellion

Cameron picked a bad time to make his party more Europe-friendly.

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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Recent events, however, have shown that there are more than 30 or 40. During the last Labour government, agitators for direct democracy were able to win agreement to an innovation called the “e-petition.” Any proposition that could get 100,000 signatures online would be debated on the floor of the House of Commons. It didn’t work out as planned. E-petitions were gathered for a reinstatement of capital punishment (which some polls show a majority of Britons favor). Another popular e-petition called for removing Gordon Brown. It wasn’t long before Gordon Brown removed the e-petition. 

This was a useful club with which to beat Labour for its arrogance. During the campaign, the Tories were almost Ross Perot-like in their embrace of direct democracy. The result has been a number of very lively and open debates launched by the new House backbench business committee. Some weeks ago the Euroskeptic Tory David Nuttall called for a referendum on whether to stay in Europe. Bill Cash, one of the original Maastricht rebels and a savvy Euroskeptic, altered the motion slightly to ask whether Britain would like to renegotiate the terms of its EU membership. (Cash’s preference is for a free-trade zone.) At that point it became a dangerous question, one with the possibility of winning a majority in the party. Cameron decided to enforce a “three-line whip”—a tool for party discipline that means any minister or minister’s secretary who votes against the measure must resign. The House of Commons resembles a Latin American army, in that more than 100 members out of a total 650 hold such “leadership” positions. So a three-line whip can kill almost any bill. Of course, a three-line whip has little to do with direct democracy.

Despite the whip, when the votes were tallied, 81 Tories had defied the leadership and 111 members of all parties had called for a renegotiation. Euroskeptic Tory Mark Reckless says that this is a sign that more than half of the party, if the whip were taken off, would vote to pull out of the union. “I’m not certain about that,” says Cash. “But there are two-thirds that would vote to renegotiate.”

For Tim Montgomerie, who edits the blog Conservative Home and has a keen sense of rank-and-file Tory thinking, several factors could be at play. One is that big programs based on abstract questions have lately failed or fallen badly into disrepute—from the Iraq war to stimulus programs to the fight against climate change to (now) the euro. Another is that Euroskeptics have found a way to talk about Europe without invoking abstract questions of sovereignty. But then, events in Europe are making questions of sovereignty look less and less abstract every day.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.

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