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The Thatcher rebate

Posted by Richard Friday, October 08, 2004

I do not usually watch BBC TV’s Question Time. Not least, my aversion stems from a detestation of David Dimbleby’s sanctimonious posturing but, having also been in the audience of one of these programmes, I am aware of how much the audience is rigged.

However, with Nigel Farage, Patricia Hewitt, David Cameron, Jody Dunn and Matthew Parris on the programme last night – in the wake of the Conservative Party conference – I thought that I should watch it as a "Europe" question was bound to come up. Indeed it did. The question was, paraphrased: has Michael Howard done enough to attract back UKIP voters with his pledge to hold an early referendum?

I do not intend to offer a blow-by-blow account of the discussion. Suffice it to say that Farage was given the first crack, saying that it would make no difference to the UKIP vote. After all, Blair was also offering a referendum, so the only difference was that the Tories were allowing it to happen a few months earlier.

But the substantive point, for this Blog, was that he moved on to the question of renegotiating the repatriation of powers, whence he poured scorn on the Tory policy saying that all the other 24 member states had to agree, and this simply would not happen. Would the Spanish agree to give up fishing in UK waters?

David Cameron conceded that the pledge was not enough, and followed the "wet" line that the Tories should concentrate on the things that really concerned people… public services, etc. But on Farage’s point, he defended Howard’s stance by invoking Margaret Thatcher, who "managed to get he money back by sticking to her guns". And Matthew Parris, who should know better, agreed. "You can still get a lot if you stick to your guns. Margaret Thatcher did", he said.

How I wish these people would take the time out to learn their history, instead of offering such lame, stale, facile statements. The point about the Thatcher rebate – and the reason for her success - was simply that the Community wanted to increase the budget (the community own resource) and to do that, unanimity was necessary. Thatcher simply linked agreement on the rebate with the budget increase, and refuse to agree to a settlement until she had agreement on her rebate. In other words, she had the whip hand.

But in a renegotiation situation, the "colleagues" – as Farage pointed out – must all agree, and the British have nothing to offer. As has been pointed out in an earlier Blog, can get what they want through enhanced cooperation or other stratagems. Therefore, the "handbag ploy" as it is called, will not work.

David Cameron, of course, is Howard’s policy coordinator. He should know this. Parris should know this as well. He was in politics at the time. What does it take to get these simple facts through their thick skulls?