2 Jul 2012

Europe and the hokey cokey

Ken Clarke was on the front bench for the David Cameron statement on Europe though it’s hard to see how he can be enjoying it. The DPM Nick Clegg wasn’t in his place. Neither were Iain Duncan Smith or Owen Patterson, both of whom, I understand, made very clear to No. 10 their displeasure at the tone and content of what the PM said in Brussels on Friday. In his remarks there the PM talked about being “optimistic” about the UK/Europe relations and prompted headlines saying he’d ruled out an in/out referendum. A far cry from the content and spin around the Sunday Telegraph article which William Hague then went on the TV to say didn’t amount to a change of policy. Clear?

Ed Miliband accused the PM of performing an “in/out hokey cokey” over the weekend. He also accused him of turning into John Major – privately, so did any number of Tory MPs. There was an unusually meticulously respectful tone to David Cameron’s responses to Tory backbenchers, some of whom may feel they haven’t always had the prime minister’s respect. Sometimes the word “craven” came to mind.

One Tory backbencher said privately that what changed the PM’s mind was properly looking at the letter from the 100 Tory MPs and the stark tone of that letter, talking about the betrayal of trust by successive governments over Europe.

David Cameron with George Osborne was moving towards committing himself to a referendum on the EU being a commitment in the next Tory manifesto. The most likely tack, the two had decided, would be to say a Tory government would renegotiate Britain’s terms of membership – asking to repatriate powers, slim things down to the single market and not much besides – and then put the (presumed successful) negotiations to a vote. That would be effectively an in/out referendum in many people’s eyes because you would either vote for the new, membership-lite terms or vote against them.

The “no” vote would not be for existing membership terms – the status quo.  It would be for withdrawal. That all assumes that the EU would give David Cameron the sort of membership-lite terms that he would want to put his name to.

As recently as two weeks ago in Mexico, David Cameron wouldn’t engage with the whole concept. He and George Osborne were repeating in interviews there the mantra that there was a referendum lock that would be triggered if the EU tried to take more powers off the UK. I asked both of them “but what happens if the EU doesn’t try to take powers off us but is transformed for those in the Euro – surely then there would be a referendum?” They both refused to engage.

Since then, the train they both knew was coming towards them speeded up. Tory MPs organised to sign a letter and ministers have been making known their thoughts. The newspapers are stirring. So we are now at a point where David Cameron feels he must inch in public towards the strategy which in private he believes is the most likely one he’ll adopt. There are countless twists ahead in the saga but a policy that was long thought dark, lunatic and fringe in the Tory Party – a referendum that is effectively in/out – now looks like a certainty for the next Tory manifesto.

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