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David Cameron’s Secret Eu Policy. He Just Can’t Bear To Think About It.

Last Updated: Friday, July 20th, 2012

What is it with David Cameron, the EU and the Telegraph?

On Friday June 28, he criticised an In-Out EU referendum while answering questions at a press conference during a Brussels summit.  “Some people just want to get out: stop the bus, I want to get off.  But I don’t share that view.  That is not the right thing to do,” he said.

These words were read as the Prime Minister saying “never” to such a referendum.  They caused such a commotion within his party that he rushed out a piece in the Sunday Telegraph two days later, declaring that “I am not against referendums on Europe…for me, the two words “Europe” and “referendum” can go together”.

Now, the Prime Minister’s words that Sunday weren’t inconsistent with his words the previous Friday – it’s worth noting that he has never actually ruled out an In-Out referendum under a future Conservative-led Government – but their emphasis was very different.

It’s worth stressing that if Mr Cameron favours any EU referendum at all it’s a renegotiation one (or perhaps more than one: a pre-negotiation referendum, to obtain backing for the future Government’s negotiating position, and a post-referendum one, to gain endorsement for whatever post-negotiation proposition he puts to the people).

But herein lies the problem.  Most Tory MPs, nearly all the voluntary party, George Osborne and Boris Johnson all want a commitment to a renegotiation and a referendum in the next Conservative manifesto.  Mr Cameron is not sure.  The position is an immensely delicate one.

So I ask again: what is it with David Cameron and the Telegraph?

Yesterday, he gave an interview to the paper in which he said that an In-Out referendum “would be bad for Britain…If your vision of Britain was that we should just withdraw and become a sort of greater Switzerland, I think that would be a complete denial of our national interests”.

Again, the Prime Minister didn’t actually rule out an In-Out (or any) referendum under a future Conservative Government.  But his were strong words – so strong as almost to justify the Telegraph running the quotes above a headline declaring “I’ll never campaign to take us out of Europe.”

Once again, his words caused a stir within his party, with Tory MPs expressing their disappointment this morning.  And once again, the Downing Street spin operation was out and about yesterday stressing that the Prime Minister “had simply been restating that he did not want a referendum now”.

There were essentially three views of what the Prime Minister was up to yesterday:

  • He was firing the opening salvo of a campaign to confront his own party’s Eurosceptics, a clear majority, by signalling that Britain must stay in the EU at all costs. 
  • He was simply repeating what has always been his position, that it is not in the least surprising, and all reaction is just so much Westminster Village hoo-hah.
  • He was once again firing from the hip without thinking through what the reaction to his words would be by Conservative MPs and party activists.

Given the Downing Street media operation yesterday I think we can rule out option one.  Mr Cameron has not been in the business of confronting his party on Europe right from the start – when he went along during his leadership election campaign with the move to pull his party’s MEPs out of the European People’s Party group.  It is not impossible that he may come to believe that the logic of his own words on In/Out must lead to just such a confrontation.  But this is very unlikely – since such a move would split the Tory party, the very end that the Prime Minister is dedicated to avoiding.

I believe we should also dismiss option two, because it is as true to say that Mr Cameron was repeating his position as it is beside the point – which is that the Eurozone has changed since the last Conservative manifesto was written, and will doubtless change even more by the time the next one is.  The Euro crisis has not gone away.  A hundred Tory MPs have written to the Prime Minister demanding a manifesto referendum commitment.  Polling shows that a narrow majority of Tory voters want to leave, and that a quarter would consider voting UKIP – whose polls ratings have climbed.

It therefore follows that for Mr Cameron simply to oppose an In-Out referendum, and proclaim the advantages of staying in the EU, has consequences that shouldn’t simply be brushed aside.  As I asked on ConservativeHome yesterday, what would happen if the Prime Minister pledges a renegotiation referendum in the next Conservative election manifesto, wins, flies across the channel with his demands…and is then told by the Germans (and others) to get lost?  Would he simply say on return: “Well, as I said, our relationship with the EU needs a big overhaul.  But since that big overhaul isn’t going to happen, we shall just have to lump it as it is”?

These are reasonable questions for his colleagues and party to ask.  The Prime Minister could close them down by saying words to the following effect: “We’ll make our manifesto decisions in due course.  But for the moment I repeat what I’ve said before: the balance is strongly in favour of us staying in the EU.”  And to the inevitable question that follows – “Does that mean, Mr Cameron, that you could imagine Britain ever leaving?” – there is an answer that will suffice.  “As you know, Jeremy (or Andrew, or whoever), Europe is changing very fast, and I believe that the question simply won’t arise, because reform – of the very kind I’ve championed for so long – is bound to come.”

All this leaves only option three on the table: that the Prime Minister keeps firing from the hip without thinking through what the reaction to his words will be by Conservative MPs, party activists and others.  A final question follows: why, since Mr Cameron is a highly intelligent man, and more aware than anyone of the tensions over EU policy that threaten to tear his party apart, does he persist in doing so?  I suspect the answer is: because his EU dilemma is so acute that he simply can’t bear to think about it.  And because he can’t bear to think about it, he keeps trying to wing it in press conferences, newspaper articles and interviews.  And because he keeps winging it, there is consequent trouble.

That trouble reminds him that EU dilemma is so acute that he simply can’t bear to think about it.  And because he can’t bear to think about it…but you know the rest of the score.  None the less, with many of his MPs, most of his party, a big slice of Tory voters, Boris Johnson, George Osborne, Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband banging at his door about Europe, the option of not thinking about it won’t be sustainable for much longer.

By Paul Goodman



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