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

Photo: Getty
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In the race to be France's next president, keep an eye on Arnaud Montebourg

Today's Morning Call. 

Good morning. As far as the Brexit talks are concerned, the least important voters are here in Britain. Whether UK plc gets a decent Brexit deal depends a lot more on who occupies the big jobs across Europe, and how stable they feel in doing so.

The far-right Freedom Party in Austria may have been repudiated at the presidential level but they still retain an interest in the legislative elections (due to be held by 2018). Both Lega Nord and Five Star in Italy will hope to emerge as the governing party at the next Italian election.

Some Conservative MPs are hoping for a clean sweep for the Eurosceptic right, the better to bring the whole EU down, while others believe that the more vulnerable the EU is, the better a deal Britain will get. The reality is that a European Union fearing it is in an advanced state of decay will be less inclined, not more, to give Britain a good deal. The stronger the EU is, the better for Brexit Britain, because the less attractive the exit door looks, the less of an incentive to make an example of the UK among the EU27.

That’s one of the many forces at work in next year’s French presidential election, which yesterday saw the entry of Manuel Valls, the French Prime Minister, into the race to be the Socialist Party’s candidate.

Though his star has fallen somewhat among the general public from the days when his opposition to halal supermarkets as mayor of Evry, and his anti-Roma statements as interior minister made him one of the most popular politicians in France, a Valls candidacy, while unlikely to translate to a finish in the top two for the Socialists could peel votes away from Marine Le Pen, potentially allowing Emanuel Macron to sneak into second place.

But it’s an open question whether he will get that far. The name to remember is Arnaud Montebourg, the former minister who quit Francois Hollande’s government over its right turn in 2014. Although as  Anne-Sylvaine Chassany reports, analysts believe the Socialist party rank-and-file has moved right since Valls finished fifth out of sixth in the last primary, Montebourg’s appeal to the party’s left flank gives him a strong chance.

Does that mean it’s time to pop the champagne on the French right? Monteburg may be able to take some votes from the leftist independent, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and might do some indirect damage to the French Thatcherite Francois Fillon. His supporters will hope that his leftist economics will peel away supporters of Le Pen, too.

One thing is certain, however: while the chances of a final run-off between Le Pen and Fillon are still high,  Hollande’s resignation means that it is no longer certain that the centre and the left will not make it to that final round.

THE SOUND OF SILENCE

The government began its case at the Supreme Court yesterday, telling justices that the creation of the European Communities Act, which incorporates the European treaties into British law automatically, was designed not to create rights but to expedite the implementation of treaties, created through prerogative power. The government is arguing that Parliament, through silence, has accepted that all areas not defined as within its scope as prerogative powers. David Allen Green gives his verdict over at the FT.

MO’MENTUM, MO’PROBLEMS

The continuing acrimony in Momentum has once again burst out into the open after a fractious meeting to set the organisation’s rules and procedures, Jim Waterson reports over at BuzzFeed.  Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder, still owns the data and has the ability to shut down the entire group, should he chose to do so, something he is being urged to do by allies. I explain the origins of the crisis here.

STOP ME IF YOU’VE HEARD THIS ONE  BEFORE

Italy’s oldest bank, Monte Paschi, may need a state bailout after its recapitalisation plan was thrown into doubt following Matteo Renzi’s resignation. Italy’s nervous bankers will wait to see if  €1bn of funds from a Qatari investment grouping will be forthcoming now that Renzi has left the scene.

BOOM BOOM

Strong growth in the services sector puts Britain on course to be the highest growing economy in the G7. But Mark Carney has warned that the “lost decade” of wage growth and the unease from the losers from globalisation must be tackled to head off the growing tide of “isolation and detachment”.

THE REPLACEMENTS

David Lidington will stand in for Theresa May, who is abroad, this week at Prime Ministers’ Questions. Emily Thornberry will stand in for Jeremy Corbyn.

QUIT PICKING ON ME!

Boris Johnson has asked Theresa May to get her speechwriters and other ministers to stop making jokes at his expense, Sam Coates reports in the Times. The gags are hurting Britain’s diplomatic standing, the Foreign Secretary argues.

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT

It’s beginning to feel a bit like Christmas! And to help you on your way, here’s Anna’s top 10 recommendations for Christmassy soundtracks.

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Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.