I have a story about the Rt. Hon. Alan Johnson MP. But first, for context, a bit of background on our Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation attempts.
Cameron was exceedingly coy about his renegotiation demands – and (one might say) he had good reasons to be coy because when these demands were finally revealed, they proved to be nugatory. In fact, downright embarrassing in terms of their lack of ambition. He set the bar low perhaps with some premonition of the problems he might face.
I have remarked elsewhere that if he had wanted to get his back-benchers and party membership on-side, he should have been looking at the very least for reinstatement of John Major’s Maastricht opt-outs, especially on the “social chapter”. He should have been demanding that we have an absolute right to control our borders (think what happens when the Germans, in desperation, give EU passports to their million “refugees”). He should have insisted on the sovereign right of the Westminster parliament to reject new EU laws (and perhaps to repeal old ones). And he might also have asked for control of fisheries and agriculture, energy and environment. These measures would not have satisfied UKIP, but might have sufficed for a majority Tories.
Instead, he asked merely for a couple of cosmetic items (a right to stay out of the €uro – which we have already – and an end to “ever closer union” – although such a change would have been mere verbiage). The only substantive request was for a four-year moratorium on in-work benefits for EU migrants. Not a right to control immigration, please note. Merely fiddling at the margin with welfare benefits. The OBR has doubts about that request – suggesting that it would make precious little difference to immigrant numbers (though it might have helped Cameron push the issue into the long grass for a few years).
But now the story is that Cameron has recognised that EU member-states – especially countries like Poland – will veto any such measures. Of course they will – how could they sell to their voters a measure that would hurt Polish citizens coming to the UK? Maybe this is a useful reality check for Cameron – maybe he will start to realise that merely going to Brussels and making perfectly reasonable requests is not going to work
Now the suggestion from Downing Street is that “the PM has always been prepared to be flexible over the mechanisms for reducing migration”. What this seems to mean is that Cameron is merely going to ask other member-states to suggest what they would allow to enable us to cut numbers. This is humiliating. It’s as if Oliver Twist had abandoned hope of more gruel, and asked if maybe there was some saw-dust or grass he could have instead.
Those of us who have been MEPs for a while could have spared Cameron the trouble – and the humiliation – and told him in advance what he could expect. But of course he didn’t ask us.
At this point, let me bring on Alan Johnson. Here we have a distinguished Labour politician (with, I would assess, rather more common sense than half the Shadow Cabinet put together). He has held or shadowed several of the major offices of state. In particular for a short period he was Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Sept 2004 to May 2005). It was during this period (I think – my records aren’t that great) that he came to Brussels to lobby British MEPs on the EU’s Agency Workers’ Directive, and in due course came to knock on my door.
The Agency Workers’ Directive was one of those pieces of EU employment legislation promulgated with good intentions. But in the UK, where agency workers were well established and where agency work provided an excellent route back into permanent employment for many of the unemployed, the changes would have damaged workers, agencies and employers. Not just my view – that was Alan Johnson’s view as a Labour Employment Secretary. Would I please vote against it, asked Johnson. Of course, I replied, but what about his own Labour MEPs? They were hell-bent on supporting it. He smiled ruefully, and admitted that his own side was the problem.
I was there in the Unemployment Committee when Johnson made his plea to allow the UK to be excluded from the legislation. He was told in no uncertain terms by the then Chairman of the Committee that we might perhaps have a temporary derogation to let us get used to the idea, but this was EU legislation and we had to buckle down and accept it, whether our Westminster parliament wanted it or not. Shades of Oliver Twist again.
I think it was then that I felt most keenly the humiliation of Britain being a mere province in a country called Europe, where Her Majesty’s Government could be over-ruled by foreign institutions (in one of which I sat). I voted against the Directive, but as I predicted, Labour MEPs voted in favour, and it went through with a big majority. There are unemployed people in England today who would be employed but for that directive.
Yet this same Alan Johnson has now become the official cheer-leader for Labour’s “IN” Campaign. On the radio today he came out with the old mantra “We are better leading from inside rather than leaving”. But Alan, we’ve been saying that for forty years, and we keep right on winning the arguments and losing the votes. You’ve seen it yourself. Now Cameron is seeing it himself. The only way to end the humiliation is to restore democratic self-government to our country. The only way is Brexit.