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Wednesday, January 23, 2013 

If, if and if.

If there's one thing to be said for David Cameron's long-awaited, twice postponed speech on Europe, it's that it's almost certainly the best of his premiership so far.  The chief reason for it being so good however is precisely its weakness: to call it vague on detail is an understatement.  It reminds of the countless articles written by opposition politicians, all promising to do something but not spelling out how they would do so if given the opportunity.  The only actual EU directive he suggested he would like to re-negotiate or renege from was on working time, otherwise going after the usual bugbears of regulation and red tape.  Put it this way: apart from that specific detail, there was little in the speech that anyone apart from the most ardent Europhile or Eurosceptic could possibly disagree with.  We all want an improved, more streamlined EU, and if this was genuinely what Cameron was seeking, substantial reform rather than renegotiation, he'd deserve cross-party support.

Except he isn't.  Cameron and his party only care about Europe in the sense that they mostly like the economic benefits while loathing everything else that comes with it.  Those economic benefits have since been somewhat undermined in their eyes by the Labour government's decision to opt into the social chapter, which brought in new workplace protections that we never had previously.  This is the view shared by some businesses, although not by all, many of whom reach the view that the positives of the single market and free movement of labour within the EU outweigh the negatives of increased worker protection.  Cameron's gamble is that business as a whole will get behind his bid for renegotiation, and won't be unnerved by the potential for the eventual referendum to result in a big fat no.  For the most part so far they've kept relatively quiet, almost certainly for the reason that they doubt it's going to actually happen.

After all, who at the moment is willing to bet that the Tories will still be in government after the next election?  Anything can still happen, but the polls aren't in his favour.  Indeed, another strand of Cameron's strategy is that going for the in/out referendum will trap Labour and Ed Miliband, just as Osborne previously aimed to with his benefits cap. The polls haven't moved, and while it would be foolish to say they also won't this time, it's likely any Tory boost will be shortlived.

Where it could have more of an impact is on the rise in support for UKIP. While much of their improved polling is down to protest votes, the offer of a referendum could well be enough to win over some of those who've become disillusioned with the Tories. If we're to believe Lord Ashcroft's polling though, much of the UKIP hardcore appear to think we live in a dystopia much like that imagined by Richard Littlejohn in his sadly overlooked To Hell in a Handcart novel; nothing short of bringing back hanging, the birch and the black and white minstrels is going to return them to the fold. The whole point of UKIP in any case, as Sunny notes, is to get out of the EU altogether, not make it slightly more acceptable as Cameron claims to want. Besides, Cameron's gambit has led to Nigel Farage taking as much credit as the prime minister's backbenchers, a spectacular result for a party leader without a single MP and fewer councillors than the Greens.

Equally clear is it's those backbenchers that are the other main victors, at least for now.  The Tory leadership has gone in the space of a year from voting against an in/out referendum to promising exactly that.  The only explanation for this latest u-turn is just how restive the party has become, as a report in the Sunday Times last week suggested.  Quite why Cameron has given in when the stakes are so high is difficult to properly ascertain: although they don't seem to realise it, Cameron is about the only asset the Conservatives have.  Defenestrating him and installing someone further to the right is not going to win them the next election, regardless of how some despite everything believe they would have won the election outright if it wasn't for Cameron's liberal tendencies.  Tony Blair repeatedly took on his backbenchers until they ended up hating him regardless of their electoral success; Cameron has thrown in the towel at the sight of the first punch heading towards him.

The problem for both them and Cameron is that regardless of what they might say when asked specifically on it, the vast majority of people don't care about Europe and the EU.  They are concerned about immigration as a result of the EU, or the European Court of Human Rights, but Cameron clearly isn't intending to renege from open borders when business is often in favour of no limits whatsoever, while the ECHR is part of the Council of Europe rather than the EU.  They also care when politicians obsess about an issue that they feel has little bearing on their lives, as the Tories have in the past.  Rather than stopping his party from "banging on about Europe", Cameron has just started off an utterly tedious debate that could potentially last four years, and will involve us seeing much more of such bores as Peter Bone, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Bill Cash.  The idea that this will instantly result in a swing back to the Tories or even win them the next election is naive.

My personal view has long been that there should be in/out referendum, both to settle the question for a generation and for the reason that I've long thought we would vote to stay in given the option.  We don't need to wait four years to do that; we could have it within six months.  My gut instinct is should the Tories win the next election (a huge if) Cameron probably would succeed in getting something back in a treaty renegotiation, mainly because the Germans clearly want us to stay in and they're going to continue holding the purse strings in the EU for years to come, with the 25 other countries going along with it.  He could then say he's done what he said he would and go to the country.  The obvious problem then is, if he's achieved something even remotely close to what the Eurosceptics who want to stay in say they want, what's the point of the EU if it works only for business and not for anyone else?  Already the shift amongst the Eurozone countries has been to effectively outlaw Keynesian economics, and with Cameron and friends repeatedly saying we're in a race where in their view workers' rights are outdated, it's not too outlandish to imagine that there could be movement on the social chapter as well.

What though if Cameron doesn't get anything approaching what his backbenchers want?  Will he still campaign for a vote to stay in?  Cameron might have caved in to his party as it makes things easier for him in the short term, but he knows full well business will mutiny if he hardens his position any further.  This is why Ed Miliband has been right to refuse to support such a referendum, not only because of all the hypotheticals involved, but as it's pointless if you're not the one doing the negotiating.  Yes, the public should have a say and soon, yet surely they should know exactly what it is they're going to be voting either for or against.  The next election, despite Cameron's navel-gazing, won't be about Europe, it'll be about living standards, the economy, the state of the NHS and whether austerity has worked.  In all probability, and for those very reasons, Cameron isn't going to be doing anything other than sitting on the backbenches himself come 2017.

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