By Matthew Barrett
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My series profiling the backbench groups of Tory MPs has usually featured groups with general ideological goals. Groups representing the traditional right or Thatcherite wing of the Party cannot be said to focus on a single area of political life. Nor can newer groups like the Free Enterprise Group, or the 2020 Conservatives. However, Fresh Start, the subject of this profile, is focused on one big area of politics: Europe.
Origins of Fresh Start
Fresh Start was formed before the summer recess in 2011, and formally launched in September last year, at an event to which all Conservative MPs were invited. Anthony Browne, in his ConservativeHome column, reported on the launch of Fresh Start at the time:
"By one count there were 104 Conservative MPs; another put it at 120 – twice the total number of Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons. Either way, it was standing room only in the Thatcher Room in Portcullis House last night, as much of the parliamentary Conservative party (and the odd hanger-on like me) met to discuss Britain’s way forward with the European Union."
The founders are Andrea Leadsom, Chris Heaton-Harris, and George Eustice, all 2010 intake members:
The three founders have strong Eurosceptic credentials: none of the three voted to deny Britain a referendum, in the important vote late last year – two were amongst the 81 referendum rebels, and one abstained on the vote.
There are no members of Fresh Start, as such, but all Tory MPs are invited to each of the meetings, in order to be as transparent and inclusive as possible.
Role of Fresh Start
There is an important distinction between Fresh Start and other backbench groups, apart from its particular focus. Fresh Start is less a dining club or voting bloc, or any other common group set-up: it is more of a research project. Fresh Start also sees itself as the Conservative element in a wider push for reform of Britain's role in Europe.
The Fresh Start Project's sole objective is to build a better relationship for Britain within the EU. It is not focused on leaving the EU, nor is it focused on reforming the EU, it is only concerned with reforming Britain's role within the EU.
The Fresh Start Project is in the process of comprehensively researching the different options for renegotiating and reforming – ie taking back – the areas of competency Britain currently cedes to the EU. Many Eurosceptics call for things like becoming members of the EEA alone, or have a Swiss or Norwegian-style relationship with the EU. However, having the Norwegian relationship, for example, would mean Britain would have to accept all sorts of European directives without having any say on them. Clearly that would be unsatisfactory for Britain, and so Fresh Start's approach is to seek to find the right relationship for Britain.
The wider campaign for a new relationship with the EU takes the form of the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for European Reform, which is open to all MPs, and which was set up in order to ensure that pro-reform voices from across the parties could be heard, and therefore a consensus on changing our position in Europe stands a better chance of being achieved. The APPG's aims are listed as:
"To explore each area where EU legislation impacts on the UK and assess whether this is better dealt with at the national or European level. To work with MEPs, interest groups and other experts to explore what a new UK-EU relationship could look like and what needs to be done to get there."
This obviously fits well with the aims of Fresh Start, and all three key members of Fresh Start are members of the APPG. Andrea Leadsom and Labour MP Thomas Docherty co-chair the APPG, and other Conservative officers – beside Eustice and Heaton-Harris – include Mark Garnier (Wyre Forest), David Ruffley (Bury St Edmunds), Margot James (Stourbridge), Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire), Karen Lumley (Redditch). The APPG's Treasurer is Anne Marie Morris (Newton Abbot), and its Secretary is Priti Patel (Witham). The pro-reform European think tank Open Europe acts as the APPG’s secretariat.
Senior Conservative figures have taken note of the project: William Hague has taken an interest in Fresh Start, and the Conservative hierarchy has been "very supportive" of the project's research so far.
The APPG meets roughly monthly, with Leadsom usually chairing the session, in order to discuss Open Europe's analysis of the areas of competency currently governed by the European Union. The APPG has also hosted other interested parties and industry groups at their meetings, including Liberty, the CBI, the TUC, and the Metropolitan Police, who spoke to Fresh Start about the European Arrest Warrant. The day following these meetings, Fresh Start holds a follow-up session to discuss the politics of the APPG meeting.
As previously mentioned, Fresh Start is primarily a research project, and at present, it is looking into each of the areas where Britain cedes power to the European Union. Since September, Fresh Start has been producing reports on:
In the next few days, the report on structural funds will be released – Fresh Start likes to launch reports when the topic is in the news.
Each of the areas of research – the topics are set to be covered by July – has their own page on the Fresh Start website (links above). The pages typically link to a report on the topic by the Open Europe think tank, minutes of a meeting on the topic by the APPG for European Reform, the slides used in that meeting's presentation, and the minutes of the corresponding meeting of Fresh Start. In addition, some of the pages link to the green paper produced by Fresh Start on the topic.
The Fresh Start Project also maintains a blog, which features contributions from Eustice, Leadsom, and Heaton-Harris, as well as non-Parliamentarians, like Ronald Stewart Brown, the Director of the Trade Policy Research Centre which examines how Britain might strengthen its negotiating position within the European Union.
The aim of Fresh Start's research is to produce a series of reports, and specific proposals on reform, which will be collected together in a "White Paper", and colour-coded:
Fresh Start does not look pessimistically upon red options, since the €urozone crisis-era European Union is going to require treaty changes, and Fresh Start aims to have a manifesto for European reform in time for the Government to be able to adopt it, or parts of it, so that it can be very clear which parts of European policy it wants returned to Britain, at any renegotiation of the treaties.
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