The pre-election battle lines over Europe were drawn up on Monday as the Blairite former business minister Pat McFadden was appointed shadow Europe minister and Downing Street confirmed David Cameron would harden his stance on EU immigration before Christmas.
In a sign Ed Miliband believes he needs to have a sharp edge to his EU policy in the runup to the general election, the former Downing Street aide agreed to return to Labour’s frontbench after a four-year gap.
McFadden, who sat in Gordon Brown’s cabinet as Lord Mandelson’s deputy at the business department, said he would make a “hard-headed, patriotic case” for Britain to remain in Europe. “Labour believes that Europe can and must be made to work better for Britain but we understand that the right road for Britain is change in Europe, not exit from Europe,” he said.
Pro-European Tories have pledged to fight “until the last drop of blood” to prevent Cameron from turning the Conservative party into what is being described as a pale imitation of Ukip. Moderate Tories fear the prime minister is inadvertently inching towards the EU exit door, and are warning of a battle to ensure the party that took Britain into the EEC in 1973 does not end up taking the country out of the EU in 2017.
“The outers may say they are slowly taking over the party and that they will eventually win over David Cameron,” one Tory said. “But they will have to trample over our bodies first. A lot of blood will be spilled.”
The warning from the small group of pro-European Tories, who say they are determined to remain loyal to the leadership during next year’s general election, came as Downing Street sources confirmed that the prime minister will lay out plans before Christmas to curb the rights of EU migrants to work in Britain.
Senior Tories are expecting the prime minister to try to shore up his leadership after the Rochester and Strood byelection on 20 November by outlining restrictions on migrants from the EU. No 10 sources declined to say whether the prime minister would speak before or after the byelection, where the Tories face a challenging fight against their former MP Mark Reckless, who has defected to Ukip.
But senior Tories believe the prime minister, who acknowledges he will face a perilous period if Reckless secures Ukip’s second byelection victory in a month, will try to save his leadership by outlining his plans after the byelection. Even if the Tories win he will want to show he is responding to voters’ concerns about immigration.
The prime minister said on Monday that the British people are his only “boss” on the EU as he hit back at criticism from the outgoing president of the European commission, José Manuel Barroso, who accused him of making a “historic mistake” on Europe.
Speaking during a visit to the Ford motor plant in Dagenham, east London, on Monday, Cameron said: “What we need in Britain is a renegotiation of our relationship with the EU and then a referendum where the British people decide do we stay in this reformed organisation or do we leave it?
“That’s what I will pursue, that’s what I will deliver, and at the heart of that renegotiation we need to address people’s concerns about immigration. I’m very clear about who the boss is, about who I answer to, and it’s the British people. They want this issue fixed, they are not being unreasonable about it, and I will fix it.”
No 10 sources declined to go into detail about the prime minister’s planned speech. But it is understood Cameron will go further than his landmark Bloomberg speech of January 2013, when he announced plans to reform the relationship with the EU and offered a referendum in 2017, but made no mention of immigration.
The prime minister later addressed EU immigration in a Financial Times article in November 2013 but suggested restrictions on current EU citizens would be limited to curbing benefit tourism.
Pro-European Tories are alarmed because they believe the prime minister keeps changing his position under pressure from Ukip and Eurosceptics in their own party. They say he initially resisted holding an in/out EU referendum before backing down in the Bloomberg speech. He then suggested restrictions on immigration would apply only to future EU member states, but is now preparing to say they will apply to current member states.
“The Eurosceptics keep on putting hurdles and the prime minister eventually clambers over them,” a pro-European Tory said. “We have to make sure he resists the final one – exit.”
Barroso said EU leaders would reject any attempt to tamper with its fundamental principles, such as the free movement of people. He dismissed as “airy fairy” a proposal floated in the Sunday Times to cap the number of national insurance numbers issued to EU immigrants with low skills, which would hit the 11 eastern European states that have joined since 2004. NI numbers could be issued for a limited period to ensure the prime minister delivers on his pledge to reduce net migration to the tens of thousands.
Barroso said it would not be possible to agree to change the free movement of citizens, which has been guaranteed since the EEC’s founding treaty of Rome in 1957. Speaking at Chatham House, he said: “When this discussion is progressing, some governments in Europe will say clearly: there is a limit to what we can offer you. There is a great willingness in European countries to accommodate British concerns. If there are concerns and if they don’t put in question fundamentals – why not?
“The sentiment in Europe is we should keep Britain in, and this is sincere even from countries that at first sight you would not consider instinctively pro-British. But there are red lines. Clearly there are red lines. I cannot tell you [what they are].
“I have been speaking to some colleagues from the European council – Angela Merkel and others – who are very sympathetic to the British staying in the EU. There are points they will not accept.”
McFadden returned to the Labour frontbench as part of a mini reshuffle which saw three other changes to the frontbench team. Gareth Thomas was rewarded for a solid performance as shadow Europe minister with a move to shadow minister for Middle East and North Africa to replace Ian Lucas, who was moved to defence covering international security strategy. Yvonne Fovargue was moved from this role in defence to the shadow education team covering young people, replacing Rushanara Ali, who resigned after the recent vote on air strikes against Islamic State forces in Iraq.
Miliband made the appointment after David Cameron hardened his Eurosceptic stance in response to the the threat of Ukip by making it clear the Conservatives could lead the UK out of the EU if they do not achieve tougher reforms on immigration. The Tories have promised a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU by the end of 2017 after Cameron has tried to negotiate a better deal for the UK.
Labour’s position is similar to that of the Liberal Democrats, with both parties saying they would hold a referendum only if more powers are handed to Brussels.
Speaking after his appointment, McFadden stressed the idea that Labour agrees there is a need change for Europe.
“I’m delighted to be joining the front bench at this crucial time,” he said. “I want to make the hard-headed, patriotic case for both Britain in Europe and for change in Europe so that it works for working people.”
McFadden, who formerly worked as a business minister under Lord Mandelson, is considered a heavyweight and experienced politician who will be able to take on the Tory arguments about the European Union, immigration and business policy.
In May, he wrote an article for Progress magazine criticising the Conservatives for being driven by Ukip into “placing a huge question mark over the UK’s membership of the European Union, access to our country’s biggest export market and our place as the most successful source of inward investment in Europe by making a referendum on withdrawal from the EU the centrepiece of their policy”.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010