David Cameron had a good day on Wednesday. After giving a convincing and impressive sounding speech that made him sound pragmatic and engaged with reforming the EU but also dangled the promise of an ‘in/out’ referendum within the next five years, he offered more than enough to pacify both the pro and anti-European wings of his party. In just over 25 minutes, he apparently managed what no Conservative leader could do in 25 years.
The Prime Minister will continue to get a good press and Labour, whose poll lead over the Tories had already narrowed to 5 points according to the latest ICM survey, will take some flak for not matching Cameron’s promise of a referendum. Labour’s handful of eurosceptics, and opportunist pundits who never think more than a few weeks ahead, will accuse Ed Miliband of dropping the ball.
But Miliband is wise to be cautious. The next election is a political lifetime away – 2017 is further still. If the wind changes decisively in the two and a half years between now and the 2015 election, there is plenty of time to perform a U-turn and back a public vote. As Cameron found to his cost after he promised and then reneged on a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, there is no value in putting yourself at the mercy of uncontrollable events.
In any case, jumping on the referendum bandwagon now would smack of the cynicism that it is. Labour cannot really expect people to buy into the pretence that it is more eurosceptic than the Tories.
The eruption of Tory support for their leader will be disconcerting for the Labour and Lib Dem benches, but we’ve been here before. The last time Cameron got such rapturous support from his party was his non-veto of the fiscal compact in December 2011. Conservative MPs lined up to praise their leader for standing up to Merkel and Sarkozy before realising that Cameron hadn’t actually prevented anything.
Besides, it’s easy to forget that, only a few days ago, Conservatives were at daggers drawn with each other over what Cameron should and shouldn’t say. The speech has applied plenty of sticking-plaster but ensured that the next four years will be dominated by the European obsession that has afflicted the Tory party for the last twenty years. The Conservative Party’s own European unity will cease as soon as the negotiations start. There’s no need for Labour to start intruding into their private grief.
The other point is to look at who some of the most vocal Tory supporters of the speech are: Bill Cash, Douglas Carswell and Bernard Jenkin, all of whom will only vote for Britain to leave the EU. Around 100 Tory MPs would campaign for a ‘no’ vote regardless of what Cameron can secure from the rest of Europe.
Cameron is more likely to have created a trap for himself, rather than for Labour. The notion that politicians in Berlin, Paris, Rome and elsewhere are going to offer a package of opt-outs and exemptions to satisfy the most eurosceptic wing of the Tory party lacks credibility. At best, Cameron will probably, like Harold Wilson in 1975, come home with little more than a piece of paper. Perhaps further powers for national parliaments in scrutinising EU legislation, an exemption from the Working Time Directive (which many countries don’t enforce anyway), a protocol about border control, tighter democratic controls over the European Commission – which would probably be supported by all parties. Achieving even this short list would be quite a feat but Tory backbenchers would still accuse him of a sell-out.
In truth, there is a good chance that Cameron will not even get the chance to renegotiate. Changing the treaties would require the unanimous consent of all 26 other countries and an intergovernmental conference. Nobody wants to re-open the treaties unless they have to and, with the eurozone now looking stronger, the prospect of rewriting the treaties to protect the single currency is growing more remote. Indeed, although it had been widely assumed that deeper integration of the eurozone would lead to treaty reform, Merkel has signalled that she will not push for any changes to the EU treaties in the near future. The banking union legislation falls under the existing legal framework, while plans to create a mutualised debt market and single finance minister for the eurozone, which would require treaty change, are now on the backburner.
Conservative party supporters up and down the country will have the bunting out over the weekend, but most voters will soon forget about Cameron’s referendum promise. The next election will be decided by the economy, not by which party is the most eurosceptic. And while the Tories may think that they can force Ed Miliband onto the back foot, nobody should forget the fact that the Prime Minister made this speech not because he wanted to, but because he felt he had to.
Ben Fox is a reporter for EU Observer. He writes in a personal capacity