Cameron promises: no more EU U-turns

The PM insists that the date of the referendum "isn't going to change". But will Tory MPs allow him to keep his word?

After one of his most difficult weeks since becoming prime minister, David Cameron put in a polished and assured peformance on the Today programme this morning. The most notable line came on Europe, with Cameron declaring, "It doesn't matter the pressure I come under from Europe, or inside the Tory party, this policy isn’t going to change. The date by which we hold this referendum isn't going to change." That was a clear signal to Tory MPs that any demands for a "mandate" referendum or for an early vote on Britain's EU membership will be rejected. But having capitulated so many times before, first by promising to hold an in/out referendum and then by drafting a bill to enshrine it in law, it is an open question whether Cameron will prevail on this occasion. Here, for instance, is what he said about a referendum in October 2011: "It's not the right time, at this moment of economic crisis, to launch legislation that includes an in-out referendum. This is not the time to argue about walking away."

On gay marriage, having largely remained silent on the issue all week, Cameron finally took the opportunity to make a passionate conservative case for the policy. "I think it's important that we have this degree of equality and I say that as someone who's a massive supporter of marriage," he said. He spoke of "young boys in schools today, who are gay, and who are worried are about being bullied" who  would see that "the highest parliament in the land has said that their love is worth as much as anyone else's and they'll stand that little bit taller today." 

After recent speculation that the Tories are planning for an early divorce from the Lib Dems, Cameron said that it was "absolutely" his "intention" for the coalition to remain in place "right up until polling day". 

More broadly, he used the interview to hammer home what will be the Tories' message up until the general election, that they are "fixing the economy, reforming welfare and delivering more good schools". If Cameron can maintain that focus, he still has a chance of winning the next election. The question now is whether his party will allow him to do so. 

David Cameron speaks at a press conference at the EU headquarters on February 8, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Like it or hate it, it doesn't matter: Brexit is happening, and we've got to make a success of it

It's time to stop complaining and start campaigning, says Stella Creasy.

A shortage of Marmite, arguments over exporting jam and angry Belgians. And that’s just this month.  As the Canadian trade deal stalls, and the government decides which cottage industry its will pick next as saviour for the nation, the British people are still no clearer getting an answer to what Brexit actually means. And they are also no clearer as to how they can have a say in how that question is answered.

To date there have been three stages to Brexit. The first was ideological: an ever-rising euroscepticism, rooted in a feeling that the costs the compromises working with others require were not comparable to the benefits. It oozed out, almost unnoticed, from its dormant home deep in the Labour left and the Tory right, stoked by Ukip to devastating effect.

The second stage was the campaign of that referendum itself: a focus on immigration over-riding a wider debate about free trade, and underpinned by the tempting and vague claim that, in an unstable, unfair world, control could be taken back. With any deal dependent on the agreement of twenty eight other countries, it has already proved a hollow victory.

For the last few months, these consequences of these two stages have dominated discussion, generating heat, but not light about what happens next. Neither has anything helped to bring back together those who feel their lives are increasingly at the mercy of a political and economic elite and those who fear Britain is retreating from being a world leader to a back water.

Little wonder the analogy most commonly and easily reached for by commentators has been that of a divorce. They speculate our coming separation from our EU partners is going to be messy, combative and rancorous. Trash talk from some - including those in charge of negotiating -  further feeds this perception. That’s why it is time for all sides to push onto Brexit part three: the practical stage. How and when is it actually going to happen?

A more constructive framework to use than marriage is one of a changing business, rather than a changing relationship. Whatever the solid economic benefits of EU membership, the British people decided the social and democratic costs had become too great. So now we must adapt.

Brexit should be as much about innovating in what we make and create as it is about seeking to renew our trading deals with the world. New products must be sought alongside new markets. This doesn’t have to mean cutting corners or cutting jobs, but it does mean being prepared to learn new skills and invest in helping those in industries that are struggling to make this leap to move on. The UK has an incredible and varied set of services and products to offer the world, but will need to focus on what we do well and uniquely here to thrive. This is easier said than done, but can also offer hope. Specialising and skilling up also means we can resist those who want us to jettison hard-won environmental and social protections as an alternative. 

Most accept such a transition will take time. But what is contested is that it will require openness. However, handing the public a done deal - however well mediated - will do little to address the division within our country. Ensuring the best deal in a way that can garner the public support it needs to work requires strong feedback channels. That is why transparency about the government's plans for Brexit is so important. Of course, a balance needs to be struck with the need to protect negotiating positions, but scrutiny by parliament- and by extension the public- will be vital. With so many differing factors at stake and choices to be made, MPs have to be able and willing to bring their constituents into the discussion not just about what Brexit actually entails, but also what kind of country Britain will be during and after the result - and their role in making it happen. 

Those who want to claim the engagement of parliament and the public undermines the referendum result are still in stages one and two of this debate, looking for someone to blame for past injustices, not building a better future for all. Our Marmite may be safe for the moment, but Brexit can’t remain a love it or hate it phenomenon. It’s time for everyone to get practical.