David Cameron yielded to pressure to face the Parliamentary Liaison Committee on the afternoon of 4th May. The committee Chair had previously written to express disappointment that he did not intend to face the committee. Proceedings can be seen here.
Following his earlier admonition of the Leader of the opposition about wearing a suit and tie, Cameron was one of only 2 people (the other being Crispin Blunt) in attendance not to wear his suit jacket.
Before progressing, it is worth visiting how the committee system works at Westminster. Committees are set up to scrutinise government policy. Many committees are set up relative to different departments such as Health, Education and Treasury. Their make up reflects the balance of the House of Commons.
Committee Chairs are elected. Committee members go through a nomination process. Eventual appointment depends on elections where needed but with horse trading behind the scenes virtually eliminating a contest. They are effectively chosen by party Whips.
It is worth remembering that the leader of the opposition was not the choice of the parliamentary Labour party but of party members. The occasional rebel may slip through but on the whole, the majority of committee members will reflect official party lines. Therefore, eurosceptics remain in the minority.
The Liaison committee is made up of representatives of other committees.
Unsurprisingly, given his performance at PMQs earlier in the day, Cameron evaded the first questions. His starting point was to claim a successful negotiation in his recent talks with EU representatives. He identified his achievement as bringing a “reformed Europe”.
The renegotiation is an additional reason to stay. He identified 4 issues with the current EU, “too much emphasis on a single currency club, too much on a political union, too much on our welfare system … not enough emphasis on growth”.
Bill Cash highlighted that Cameron had promised “a fundamental change in the relationship which we have with the European Union”. He also highlighted that “treaty change” had not been achieved and that EU institutions remained unchanged. In fact, constitutionally, treaty change has yet to be ratified.
Debate will continue as to whether or not, whether Britain is, or will be, exempt from “ever closer union”. Cameron describes ours as a “special status in the EU”.
Meg Hillier asked about funding flows, highlighting that the Prime Minister’s own advisers said that “things would get worse before they get better”, before reverting to party political points of calling a referendum which might upset the status quo.
Ian Wright brought the line of questioning around to trade deals. Cameron suggested that it is harder to negotiate trade deals as an individual country. He highlighted how the British economy is service based, how 44% of our exports go to the EU.
The first thing we would have to do is sort out our trading relationships with the EU. Full access such as Norway would require similar costs and are subject to free movement of people. Canada has a good deal but that has taken 7 years. Do we want to be a “rule taker”? “Any deal is worse than we have now”. Food is still protected.
“Is business as usual good enough?” “Power passed to Brussels initiates a referendum”. TTIP is a big deal for Britain. In the steel industry 40% of Port Talbot output goes to Europe. Britain could be subject to anti-dumping tariffs on steel.
Can we get better arrangements than we have now? “I don’t think we can”.
Particularly helpful to Cameron was Neil Carmichael, comparing Britain’s prospects in the market to Albania. Carmichael asked about the 8 economists compared with reports such as OECD. Minford, one of the great economists of his generation, arguably behind deregulation which spurred growth in the 1980s, was summarily dismissed.
According to Cameron, Minford’s views require examination, farcical reports from the Treasury are authoritative.
Cameron returned to British exports and how they would be hit in Europe, tariffs of 10% on cars, 30% on clothes perhaps as much as 70% on beef. Carmichael made the prospect of 66 new free trade agreements seem daunting.
Crispin Blunt asked “why can’t we negotiate with anyone we choose?” Cameron returned to the 44% of exports going to Europe. After Blunt followed up with why wouldn’t we be faster to negotiate on our own, wouldn’t we be faster? Once again we heard that 44% of our exports go to Europe with 8% of Europe’s coming to us.
Bernard Jenkin provided some relief, highlighting the questionable legality of the £9.3m taxpayer funded document sent to households. He followed that up with suggestions from the Unite trade union that Cameron had compromised over other legislation over EU support.
Where it suited Cameron, he was sceptical over statistics, notably when the SNP representative, Pete Wishart, approached the Scottish situation. Cameron stressed how passionate he is about the union, apparently nobody else is. Wishart probed about scare stories, whereupon Cameron produced one more, about 100,000 Stock Exchange (currently subject to German take over) jobs being lost.
Keith Vaz brought up the question of EU migrant criminals costing the British taxpayer. Cameron briefly conceded that more could have been deported.
Frank Field had a brief shot at whether Cameron’s position would be tenable if Britain said no. Field followed up with migration figures and prospective Turkish membership, both of which were glossed over.
The impressive Nicola Blackwood uncovered some fascinating technical information on intellectual property and EU funding, a point that merits further investigation. Her questions pinpointed the lack of contingency planning by Cameron and his government.
The Chair returned to the strength of Cameron’s deal, that it is yet to be approved by the European Union Parliament. Apparently, the President of the European Parliament can guarantee which way independent members vote.
What Cameron did is what he did best, as you would expect from the self-styled `heir to Blair’. He repeated points that he had been challenged on but not answered. His talent is for spin, as in a recent PMQs when he stated that increased contributions to the EU budget were good thing because our economy was growing faster. Documents are “legally binding” even when they haven’t been legally approved.
So how did he insult all and sundry?
Firstly, he insults the British people by suggesting that we accept tariffs on British exports lying down. If EU members impose tariffs on British made cars, clothes and beef, we will not respond by imposing reciprocal tariffs.
He insults EU countries, notably near neighbours. France will accept reciprocal tariffs on champagne, camembert, Italy and Germany on pepperoni, salami and other agricultural products.
On manufactured products, Germany, France, Romania, Czech Republic, Netherlands, Spain and several others will accept job losses for BMW, VW, Skoda, Dacia, Seat, not to mention the American producers of some of Britain’s most popular cars produced by Ford and General Motors in other European countries.
He also insults our biggest single trading nations, the USA by belittling transatlantic trading links, similarly, Commonwealth countries such as Canada, our fastest growing markets for luxury goods such as India and China, other suppliers of meat such as New Zealand and Australia.
In short, we are a nation dependent on a European Union whose trade with us accounts for a mere 8% of their trade. Put another way, were we outside the EU, we would still be the EU’s biggest trading partner. That 8% is an output from around 400million people.
Our 44% is from around 60million people. Multiplying through, in cash terms we are more important to the EU than the EU is to us.
Finally, he insults our own civil service, people and politicians. We are incapable of seeking trade from around the world, the civil service is incapable of negotiating from a position of pumping £80billion per year into Europe, British politicians lack the ability and the will to have a vision for the future.
As a post script, Britain has a proud tradition in Economics. People such as Minford and Congdon produced schools of thought that underlay growth through deregulation. They are a huge part of the reason that Britain’s growth exceeded that of the rest of Europe. They follow the likes of Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes as innovators.
Ultimately, it is for the British people to decide how transparent bland repetition of contestable points actually is. We can make up our own mind as to whether slight tinkering of welfare benefits constitutes “reform” and whether huge omissions constitute facts.
This blog was originally published by the author 4 May 2016