Lord Rees-Mogg, the former Editor of the Times and Cross-bench Peer, stopped off on his journey from London to his home in Somerset to address the North West Hampshire Conservative Patrons Club at a packed meeting at the home of Sally Merison. Accompanied by his wife Gillian, they dined with local Conservatives and then Sir David Mitchell, the former MP for NWE Hants introduced Lord Rees-Mogg who spoke about the EU Convention.
"Whether you are a Europhile or a sceptic, there is a need for the European Union to have a good constitution. Whether you believe in a federal Europe or an association of independent states, the constitution must be capable of serving its purpose"
He went on to say that few people understood the complexities of the Convention that had just completed its work, and he believed there were some serious deficiencies in the draft constitution.
"It will now go to the IGC under first the Italian Presidency and then under UK presidency, but I expect there will only be a small number of vital changes and that 90% will be unaltered."
He criticised the Government for not agreeing to a Referendum before the Treaty was ratified by Parliament, and took issue with those who said it only contained minor changes and was "tidying up."
He identified an important constitutional change in that the Convention gave the EU a legal personality and argued that this represented a "tipping-point" in the move torwads federalism.
Referring to the abilkity of the UK electorate to dismiss at a General Election an administration which it disapproved of, he said this would be more difficult if key decisions were taken in Europe.
He also pointed out that the Convention would reinforce the supremacy of EU law over our law, and that the Charter of Human Rights would become a legal obligation. "The European Court of Justice will become the equivalent of a Supreme Court and will have the capability of changing our constitution."
On the issue of shared and exclusive competence, he pointed out that exclusive competence had been reserved to the EU, while National Governments only had shared competences. He also criticised the proposed procedure for Qualified Majority Voting by saying that it penalised smaller countries and reinforced the dominance of France and Germany.
After Lord Rees-Mogg answered questions, Sir George proposed a vote of thanks to him, and also congratulated the Chairman of the Patrons Club, Sandy Copland, for organising such a successful event.
In his weekly column in the Times on August 11th, Lord Rees-Mogg referred to his visit to NW Hampshire - see below.
August 11, 2003
June is the cruellest month for Labour
To understand any institution — a college, a business, a regiment, a newspaper or a political party — you have to feel some affection for it. You do not need to agree with its policies or admire its leaders, but you have to have some sympathy with the loyalties of its members. That is why many journalists have so little feel for the Conservative Party. They see all its real faults, and some that do not exist, but they do not see its virtues. They cannot therefore understand why, come hell or high water, about a third of British voters turn out to vote for it.
Many journalists have not really understood the revolutionary change that William Hague made in the party’s constitution. He gave the election of the leader to the membership. The Conservative leadership is democratic; Iain Duncan Smith knows that he holds his office because the ordinary constituency activists preferred him, or his policies, to those of his rival, Kenneth Clarke.
This was not a matter of personalities. Kenneth Clarke plainly possessed greater experience — by a wide margin — and better presentational skills. It was a policy matter. The Tories in the country agreed with IDS on Europe, and rejected Clarke’s European views. If the Labour activists had been given a similar choice, Gordon Brown might well have beaten Tony Blair. Political activists will not vote for the good presenter with a policy they distrust, and they have always distrusted Blair’s vision of new Labour.
Last week there was a small ripple in the newspapers, caused by rumours that Theresa May was to be replaced as chairman of the Conservative Party. On Saturday this was denied by Iain Duncan Smith, who had made a reassuring telephone call from his Scottish holiday. On Thursday The Daily Telegraph had published an interview with Tim Yeo, the Shadow Secretary for Trade and Industry. He did not mention Mrs May, but described the problems of the party in terms which were held by the Telegraph to criticise her.
It was, on the face of it, an innocuous interview, supporting Iain Duncan Smith’s leadership, suggesting that Central Office should concentrate on marginal seats, warning against complacency though suggesting that the party should revise its expectations upwards, perhaps to a gain of 100 seats. Probably Mr Yeo would have been wiser not to give the interview, particularly as he had been suggested in some newspapers as a possible replacement for Mrs May. But, at worst, no great harm was done, if no good either.
It may, however, have irritated people in the constituencies, if only because of the heading, “Yeo Piles Pressure on May”. The real Tory party, particularly the active members in winnable seats, are loyalists. They do not want changes at the top. They are not complacent — few of them expect to win the next general election — but they are regaining their confidence. They have survived 10 disastrous years, from 1992 to 2002, but they now believe that the worst is over.
They are angry whenever they see anyone rocking the boat, even as mildly as a heading on page 2 of The Daily Telegraph. They might not have stood for Iain Duncan Smith sacking Theresa May, even if he had wanted to. They are loyal to her because they are loyal to the party, and they know that party unity is the condition of further progress. Tim Yeo is not the flavour of the month of August, though a good party conference speech by him could put that right in October.
I happened to visit a Conservative constituency last month, to talk about the new European constitution. It was North West Hampshire; Sir George Young is the Member and Andover is the main town. I have seldom seen a constituency in better shape. If prizes were awarded for healthy constituencies, I would have pinned a blue rosette on it. Of course, George Young is a good Member of Parliament, as popular in his constituency as he is in the House of Commons. He would have made an excellent Speaker. His constituency association is not complacent, but it is confident. The feel is right.
At the constituency level, a recovery is taking place. There are still people who criticise IDS and say that the party can never win under his leadership. But there are also those who think that he is gaining in experience and self-confidence. His top team is regarded as more than a match for its opposite numbers on the Labour front bench.
Michael Howard, Michael Ancram, Oliver Letwin — seen as a rising star — and Theresa May herself are all perceived by their supporters in the country as definitely effective. Conservative supporters do not all read policy documents, but they accept that policies are being developed which would make sense to them. There are even signs of the young taking a new look at the Conservatives. If politics is about fashion, new Labour may be taking over from the Tories as the unfashionable party.
The latest opinion poll supports this impression. The Mail on Sunday published a YouGov poll yesterday; it had been taken in August. The figures are: Conservatives 38; Labour 34; Liberal Democrats 21. No one can be sure how this would convert into seats at an actual general election. It would, however, cost Labour enough seats to threaten its overall majority.
Some commentators have argued that Labour has little to fear: governments, they write, always suffer mid-term unpopularity, Labour will inevitably recover. There is, in fact, nothing inevitable about it. Labour did not recover in 1970 or 1979; the Conservatives in 1997. All that one can say is that most governments become unpopular in their mid-term, and that they sometimes recover but sometimes not. What is dangerous is an unfavourable trend. Unless Labour can reverse the present trend, it will be in serious trouble in an election in 2005 or 2006, which is still a long way off.
There is, however, an election taking place before 2005, which presents Labour with an unusual difficulty. In June 2004, only ten months away, there will be the next European elections. The past European elections were very bad for Labour, particularly in England. Despite a large vote for the United Kingdom Independence Party, sufficient to win three English seats under the proportional system, the Conservatives beat Labour in England by 38.5 to 21.5 per cent, on a very low turnout. That was in a month when Labour was ahead by 26 points in the Gallup poll.
The European constitution will be central to the next European elections. The present plan is to complete the intergovernmental negotiations by the end of this year and to ratify the treaty by the end of June. This timing is quite likely to slip. The Government is still fighting to avoid a referendum on the European constitution, and it hopes to use a purely parliamentary procedure, with no public vote. Unless the Government gives way, its veto on a referendum will become the great issue of next June’s European elections.
One has to look only at the electoral factors to see how dangerous this European election could be for Labour. If one compares the August YouGov in 2003 with the August Gallup in 1998 — ten months before the last European election — there has been a swing of 15.5 per cent to the Conservatives. Yet in 1999 the small European turnout gave the Conservatives, who were still far behind in the polls, an 8 per cent majority in the European elections.
Now the Conservatives start ahead. The next ten months may be difficult for Labour — the Conservatives may go ahead still further. Add to that, the polls show that 80 per cent of voters want a referendum. The European constitution involves the creation of a single European state. One can see the possibility of catastrophe for Labour in the European elections.
Perhaps it would be the sort of catastrophe which forces a change of leader. Perhaps it would force a change of policy. At any rate, it looks as threatening as an electoral Niagara, potentially as big a collapse of support as the Conservatives suffered in 1997.
This is all the more dangerous because the issue of a European constitutional referendum goes to the heart of the issue of trust. In June 2004, on the European issue, the Conservatives will be campaigning to trust the people. The Labour campaign will be to trust the politicians.
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