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Cameron bets the farm on the kindness of strangers (and, more perilously still, of his party)

By Paul Goodman
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Cameron 3David Cameron delivers his speech on Europe at the Bloomberg HQ in London, © i-Images

Most people fear losing control - of their work, their play, their lives: even, in some cases, their sanity.  They may bet the mortage on what they do: indeed, that's how those of us who have mortgages tend to get by.  But they do not, as a rule, bet it on what others may do - on their relatives, say, helping them out if the household finances turn sticky, especially if family life has been a bit strained recently; or on their neighbours stumping up a loan, especially if those neighbours - while sometimes well-disposed - have no urgent stake in helping out.

But this is exactly what David Cameron has decided to do today.  That puffed-up word, "historic", is almost never applicable to any decision a politician makes at the time.  But it really looks as though it might be so in this case.  I don't believe that the Prime Minister will lead a majority Conservative Government after 2015 that can deliver his pledge to hold an In-Out referendum before 2017.  But an announcement this bold - giving the British people their say, and putting Britain's EU membership on the line - none the less has consequences.

Number Ten insists that the referendum will be a red line in any coalition negotiations post-2015 - the first sign, like the proverbial letter to the Times sighting the first cuckoo of spring, of a new feature in British politics for the next election: politicians being forced to concede, in the after-shadow of Nick Clegg's tuition fees pledge last time round, which manifesto commitments they mean and which they don't.  I doubt that the Prime Minister's Euro-sceptic party, now fired up by the prospect of renegotiation, would let him renege on this promise, even if he wanted to.

Cameron may of course not be in a position to lead a coalition after 2015, any more than he may be in one to form a majority or minority government.  But once a referendum pledge has been scrambled, it cannot easily be unscrambled.  Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have now been cast by Cameron as inside-the-beltway fixers frightened of giving the voters a choice.  Either or both may therefore resile before 2015: Miliband, especially, will not want Cameron to have the chance to squeeze UKIP's vote by arguing that only his party can guarantee a referendum in government.

But if the Prime Minister has restricted the room for manoevre of his main party rivals, he has curtailed it altogether for any Conservative successor.  If the Tories lose in 2015 and Miliband denies the people a referendum, the new Conservative leader will have little option but to promise one after 2020.  In short, Cameron's announcement really has made that In/Out referendum more likely to happen - which is why that H-word may not be hyperbole.  Much, however, depends on others - which is where we began and must now continue.

The Prime Minister may know exactly what powers he will attempt to repatriate - though I doubt it, and the speech itself is vague on the point.  But assuming for a moment he is Prime Minister after 2015, he cannot know how other EU countries will treat the proposals he brings, or how his party will react to any deal he makes.  He told Tory Cabinet members last week that they will have to sign up to any such deal, or resign.  He thus cannot know how many of them may do so, or how many Conservative MPs and party members will oppose such a deal.

Indeed, he cannot know if there will be a deal in the first place.  He therefore also cannot know whether he will return from any renegotiation recommending whether Britain should stay in the EU or leaves it in the referendum that will follow.  And of course he cannot know what the political condition of Europe will be in 2017; who will be governing Germany or France, what state the economy will be in here - or a hundred, a thousand other things of the kind that politicians like to know before committing themselves to anything at all - let alone something so important.

In the short-term, Cameron's dramatic dash to borrow shedloads of money from his family and neighbours will probably go down well with voters.  As Tim points out, Miliband will look cowardly as he refuses the people a say; one of Nigel Farage's prize foxes, an In/Out referendum, has been shot - and stuffed and mounted into the bargain; Clegg will wriggle.  But I wonder about the medium-term - which, in my book, is most of the period between now and the next election.  Because the logic of what happens next is not exactly on the Prime Minister's side.

For when the dust settles after today's events, the facts will remain: namely, that Cameron's family - his party - may not be willing to supply the necessary credit, and that his neighbours (other EU countries) may not be willing to do so either.  Cameron's speech is already gaining a enthusiastic reception from his Parliamentary colleagues - see elsewhere on this site.  (It would be surprising were this not the case: Ken Clarke has been sold, Liam Fox has been squared, Hannan and Leadsom are quite prepared.)

Those MPs who can't stand the sight of Cameron - of whom there are more than there might be - will bite their lips and bide their time.  But sooner or later, the fun will begin.  The Prime Minister will want to be imprecise about his repatriation of powers shopping list, partly in order not to reveal his hand to other EU countries.   Many Euro-sceptic Tory MPs and party members, however, will want to be very precise indeed.  They want "common market or out".  Nothing else now will do.

So an opt-out from financial services legislation, say, and the working time directive won't be nearly enough for them.  Nor will it be enough, I think, for Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson and perhaps Michael Gove.  Boris Johnson is waiting in the wings, and George Osborne is watching him anxiously.  Prepare for journalists to try to pick off Tory MPs and Ministers one by one, asking each one for their own shopping list of demands.  Miliband will pile in, accusing the Prime Minister of weakness.  So, in a more muted way, will Clegg.  So, in a less muted one, will Farage.

And if Cameron is Prime Minister after 2015, the inexorable logic of his speech today will begin to bite in earnest.  The more repatriations of power he pushes for, the more likely it is that he will satisfy his party, but  the less likely it is that he will satisfy his neighbours.  In the final event, neither may stump up the credit he is asking for.  It could be, of course, that he is saved by the bell - in other words, that he turns out not to be an isolated leader, seeking change alone, but that events force a wider reconfiguration of the EU, which would ease his position.

But these mays and mights don't obscure a truth: that Cameron's decision is the right one for the country and that he should be honoured for it - but that voters will surely wonder why he has bet the farm on the kindness of strangers and, still more dangerously, of colleagues.  The bleak answer is: because he can't afford not to.  He is overdrawn at the bank.  In other words, he didn't win the last election, and lacks authority within his party.  His is fundamentally a fragile position.  And since voters aren't fools, they know it.


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