Cameron's EU stance is unsustainable and the sceptics know it

The EU-lite deal he imagines to keep the best of both worlds can't be done.

David Cameron would not campaign for a “No” vote if the British people were asked in a referendum if they wanted to stay in the European Union. That is one of the main news items to come out of a wide-ranging interview the PM has given to the Daily Telegraph at the start of the long summer recess.

At one level, it isn’t that much of a surprise. In a long parliamentary debate after the last European Council summit, Cameron expressed, albeit in fairly delicate terms, the very same point. He indicated that he doesn’t want to hold a referendum now, because the nature of the EU is changing rapidly in response to the single currency crisis. He would rather wait to see what institutional adjustments and treaty changes emerge, use those amendments to negotiate a different, looser relationship with Brussels and then perhaps consult the nation on whether his preferred EU terms are acceptable.

It stands to reason that he expects his negotiations to be successful, or at least that he would only dare hold a referendum if he thought he had wangled a decent package, including “repatriation” of powers. So, by extension, he would be selling a deal with his name on it. Naturally he would then campaign for a “yes” vote.

The curious thing is that he has chosen to spell it out again now in black and white. Anyone familiar with or who cares about the way EU diplomacy actually works knows it would be an affront for an incumbent British PM to go around advertising in advance that he might campaign for complete exit. And those who think exit is the only serious and desirable option already suspect Cameron of being a bit of a Brussels quisling. So the only thing this interview line can achieve is rubbing the sceptics’ noses in the fact that they don’t have a friend in Number 10. An odd choice, given the difficulties Cameron already has with party management.

But the real problem Cameron has with all this stuff is the complacency (or naivete?) in thinking he will get a renegotiation deal that will satisfy the Tories. The argument usually deployed is that Britain is a desirable market for our European neighbours and a purchaser of their goods and services. Ergo, they will want to keep us on side and will acquiesce to our demands.

There are two problems. First, diplomacy can trump economics in Europe. Cameron has persistently underestimated how fed up the rest of the continent is with the UK’s half-hearted engagement – the in/out “hokey-cokey” approach. This goes back way further than the current government. The Germans in particular are said to be impatient and their appetite to meet London’s needs is diminished further by conspicuous Schadenfreude among Tories over the failings in the single currency project. The British message in Brussels at the moment boils down to: “We’re sorry that you’ve made a right hash of everything. We did warn you. It’s not really our problem, except when it impacts on our growth. So could you please sort it out. Follow policies of deeper integration, which we despise and would never pursue ourselves and then, when you’ve finished, could we please have a whole bunch of social policies back plus other yet-to-be named dispensations? Oh, and by the way, we’ll veto your treaties unless you give us what we want. And did we add that we won’t surrender any control over the terms of the single market. We must stay at the top table at all times. Is that ok?”

A Whitehall source, who has discussed these things with senior figures in Angela Merkel’s office, recently ran this proposition past German counterparts and reports that: “The answer is ‘no’”. Of course it is.
 
Second, even if Cameron negotiates some nominal repatriation of powers – a looser arrangement on paper – and even if he secures formal guarantees that our status in the single market is preserved, he can’t deliver that protection in practice. He can do nothing about “caucusing”. This is the process by which members of a new, ultra-integrated, consolidated Eurozone turn up at wider EU summits with pre-agreed positions that can be voted through, whether Britain likes it or not. In other words, Cameron could have a piece of paper saying the UK will not be disadvantaged in the single market and wave it around like crazy when he steps off the Eurostar, but it won’t matter because we’ll be marginalised when it comes to the detail of all subsequent rule changes. The sceptics understand this perfectly well and so won’t be fooled by any “renegotiation”. They will still want out.

So really Cameron’s message is that he can’t give his party what it really wants on Europe and he won’t pretend that he can. That is a brave line to take given the current mood of the Conservative benches.

PS. For further reading on UK relations with the EU, by far the best thing published recently is this excellent Centre for European Reform pamphlet by David Rennie of the Economist.

David Cameron said he would not campaign for a "no" vote in an EU referendum. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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