Prime Minister David Cameron faces a double blow on Europe this week as he squares off against both EU judges on the matter of prisoners voting, and his own supporters on the campaign for a British exit from the EU. Insiders are claiming that his ministers have been banned from discussing the subject at their party’s conference, which starts today.
On Tuesday, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) is set to deliver a ruling on whether British prisoners should be given the right to vote in European elections – a right the idea of which the prime minister has previously said left him feeling “physically sick.”
Then later in the week a campaign to leave the EU is due to be unveiled which will reveal the list of Tory donors who have defied the party leadership’s pleas not to campaign against Cameron.
Cameron has repeatedly claimed that he will lead the campaign to lead Britain out of the EU should his planned reforms of Britain’s membership terms fail. He repeated that pledge today, telling the Sun on Sunday: “If we don’t get what I want, I’ve said I’ll rule nothing out. And by that I mean I’ll rule nothing out.”
However, it is widely seen as a hollow promise. Lord Ashcroft and Isabel Oakeshott’s new damning biography on the prime minister reveals that he has no intention of leading a Brexit campaign, watering down his reform proposals in a bid to be able to claim some sort of victory and campaign to stay in.
In his speech to the Conservative Party conference, due on Wednesday, he will tell the party faithful that his deal will deliver “the best of both worlds,” allowing the UK to enjoy “the benefits of the single market” while remaining outside the borderless Schengen Zone and the Euro currency.
However, his critics have pointed out that the ruling on prisoners is, ironically, illustrative of the wider problems with European Union membership which the Prime Minister seems keen to ignore.
The European Court is expected to endorse a ruling by the EU’s advocate general, in a case brought by a French prisoner who is demanding the right to vote in EU elections. The advocate general found that blanket bans on prisoner voting, as is currently in place in the UK, defy EU law.
Owen Paterson, a vice-president of Conservatives for Britain, said of the ruling: “The prime minister has been absolutely clear that he does not want prisoners voting but if it is imposed on us by the ECJ it is a very graphic example that at the moment we do not make our own laws.”
He added: “What’s so sickening is that he is fluffing a glorious opportunity to get the powers to make our own laws back. It is being squandered because we’ve got such pathetically limited ambitions.”
As the Conservative Party gathers in Manchester for their annual conference, Cabinet sources claimed that they had been gagged by the party from speaking out on European matters. So far business secretary Sajid Javid has pulled out from a fringe group organised by the Eurosceptic group Business for Britain, citing a “diary clash”.
But a source from the “out” campaign said: “There is panic in Downing Street. They’re shutting down debate in the party on Europe.”