There is no stylish way to fetch awkward policy decisions from the long grass after they’ve been punted there. Early next year, David Cameron will make a speech on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union. The intervention has been advertised for months and serially delayed. When it happens, Downing Street will pretend it is a stately stroll around the manicured lawn of prime ministerial strategy. No one will be fooled. Cameron is scrabbling around in the unruliest corner of the Westminster field, where rebellious nettles sting, because his party has ordered him there and told him not to come back without a referendum.
It has to be the genuine article, too. Tory MPs won’t be satisfied with some low-rent consultation offering a choice between different flavours of EU membership. Exit has to be on the menu.
The Prime Minister has already blundered by allowing his Europe speech to acquire totemic significance. In a recent speech, he described the delay as a “tantric approach to policymaking . . . [It will be] even better when it does come.” Such ribaldry tickled his audience but it broke a basic rule of political presentation: under-promise and over-deliver. Once billed as orgasmic, a statement of intent to withdraw from, say, the common fisheries policy is sure to be an anticlimax.
Cameron has a sound reason for postponing decisions on Europe. It makes no sense to invite the British people to endorse EU membership when no one can say what the EU will look like after the crisis in the single currency has played itself out. The sceptics insist eurozone turmoil is an opportunity for the UK to muscle in and snatch back lost sovereignty. Cameron, they say, should withhold support for any new Brussels treaty until those demands are met. Setting a referendum date is vital to that plan because it would show fellow European leaders that angry Albion isn’t bluffing.
As well as being obnoxious as diplomacy, that strategy is wildly unrealistic. The powers that sceptics target for “repatriation” – the right to abandon swathes of social protection, for example – are locked up in treaty clauses that no other government wants to unpick.
As eurozone members negotiate deeper integration to buttress the single currency, Britain’s potency in EU decision-making is automatically diluted. As the centre consolidates, the UK drifts to the periphery. The challenge for Cameron is not to claw competences back from Brussels but to fight for the right to stay in the room when countries that use the single currency are making decisions affecting countries that don’t. The hard-core sceptics know their repatriation demand cannot be satisfied within the EU; it is a euphemism for exit.
Meanwhile, those Tory MPs who grasp the folly of Britain surrendering its seat on the board of the world’s biggest trading bloc are getting nervous and starting to speak out. “There is a fantastic vision of an EU which remains a single market, including the UK but which in all other respects allows the UK to be outside,” said the Home Office minister Damien Green in a speech on 11 December. “This is a fantastic vision precisely because it is a fantasy.”
On that point, Green agrees with Nick Clegg. The Deputy Prime Minister also describes the ambition to quit the EU without economic penalties as a “fantasy world”. There are plenty of Conservative MPs who use the “f” word when talking about their colleagues’ anti-Brussels zeal in private. They are reluctant to go public for fear of triggering civil war. The moderates find it maddening that their loyalty to the Prime Minister and their commitment to party unity cedes all the publicity to rebel wreckers. “Unlike them, we don’t do blue-on-blue,” says one pro-European Tory of the unilateral truce practiced by his dwindling faction.
While one side of the party agitates for a populist arms race with the UK Independence Party, the less vocal wing doubts that the interests of the party or the British economy are best served by tinpot isolationism. The pragmatists talk a lot about “the Honda problem”. This is a Downing Street coinage to describe the reluctance of big multinational companies – Japanese car manufacturers, for example – to invest in Britain if they think their factories might wind up on the wrong side of a European tariff barrier. Or they might at least delay investment until the situation is clearer.
One way to achieve clarity would be to hold an in/out vote as soon as possible. The point has been made by Boris Johnson, ever attentive to Cameron wounds that might need salting. The Mayor of London knows there won’t be a plebiscite this side of an election. Cameron can’t campaign to stay in the EU on current terms without tearing his party in half and he isn’t convinced that it is safe to leave – yet.
No Fear Crew
Tory ministers and aides increasingly talk about their euroscepticism not as a fixed view but as a journey. They say they are moving away from fear of what would happen if Britain opted out altogether.
That mood is infecting the Prime Minister to judge by his latest rhetoric. When asked in parliament on 17 December whether he could imagine taking the UK out of the EU, Cameron replied: “All futures for Britain are imaginable. We are in charge of own destiny.”
The chief foil to the No Fear Crew in Downing Street is Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary. His power has famously spread into the gaps left by Cameron’s inattention to detail and his function in the Europe debate appears to be topping up depleted levels of prime ministerial anxiety about Britain being left out in the cold. That caution confirms some Tory suspicions that Whitehall and Brussels are part of one infernal bureaucratic brotherhood.
Cameron has been holding out for a middle way. He wants a plan for changing the terms of Britain’s EU membership that keeps all of the trade advantages of being inside the club while shedding the duty to honour its rules. That is the fantastic compromise that would unite his party; fantastic as in a fantasy.