Cameron's referendum gun is firing blanks

The Prime Minister cannot negotiate effectively in Brussels and give his MPs what they want at the same time

David Cameron’s position on whether there should be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union is an entirely rational one. That isn’t to say he is doing the right things at European summits or has the right policy. It is simply an observation about the tricky position he is in, having to negotiate simultaneously in Brussels with fellow heads of government and in Westminster with his own party.

The two sets of demands are incompatible. In Brussels, the Prime Minister wants to influence the evolution of European institutions as they adapt to the single currency crisis. He needs to preserve British influence without signing up to any more political or economic integration. That balancing act gets harder when his continental counterparts think the UK is determined to sabotage their efforts and is, in any case, striding towards the exit. That is precisely the message that would be transmitted by a premature commitment to a referendum regardless of what comes out of current negotiations.

Tory Eurosceptics, meanwhile, argue that the prospect of a referendum will focus the minds of the PM and the rest of the EU, making it clear that the final deal has to be a good one for Britain ...or else. That view rests on the uncertain premise that other European countries desperately want to avoid a British exit. Diplomatic patience with the UK is running thin. Besides, seasoned observers of the Tory right (at home and abroad) recognise that the end game for many MPs is exit no matter what concessions are wrung from Brussels. Why should Angela Merkel or François Hollande offer David Cameron favours on the basis that it might help him control his party and buy a renewed mandate of the UK’s EU membership when they know perfectly well that it won’t?

But Cameron can’t simply tell his party to shut up and wait and see what he has negotiated before demanding a referendum. Tory MPs don’t trust his pledges on Europe and want some indication that the plebiscite they crave will materialise. So he has to indicate that he recognises the need for a vote without actually stating that there will definitely be one. Britain’s membership of the EU really ought to be ratified by a national vote but there isn’t much point asking the question until the terms of that membership are settled and they are now, thanks to uncertainty over the single currency, in flux. That is Cameron’s position and, as I say, it is reasonable given the political constraints he is under.

The most aggressively eurosceptic section of the Tory party, however, is minded to be unreasonable. I don’t mean that in the pejorative sense of ‘irrational’. I mean their patience has run out and they don’t want excuses. They feel Cameron has been given the benefit of the doubt on Europe in the past and has been flaky on the subject. (In fact he has been extraordinarily accommodating.) His promises to deliver something – maybe - at an unspecified point in the future are worthless currency in the Conservative ranks.

There is no great diplomatic advantage in sounding off about a referendum; if anything it weakens Britain’s negotiating position. Nor does the vague promise of a referndum do very much for non-aligned voters with other things on their minds. So the only point of even talking about a vote is as a gesture to the Ukip-leaning tendency and the only gesture that will satisfy them – a clear irreversible commitment to an in/out question - is one the Prime Minister cannot make. It is, in political terms, as if Cameron has pulled out a gun to look all macho eurosceptic when everyone knows he is firing blanks.

David Cameron "can’t simply tell his party to shut up and wait and see". Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era