The Conservatives don’t have a position on EU membership but they have a trajectory. The motion is towards the view that Britain should leave; the speed is controlled by David Cameron’s ability to pretend that reform can persuade most Tories to stay.
If the next election is lost, that fiction will expire along with Cameron’s premiership. His successor would be chosen by despondent party members craving congress with schismatic Ukippers. Only Europhobic candidates need apply. If, on the other hand, Cameron wins a second term, he will discover before October 2017 – the date proposed for a referendum – that no amount of “renegotiation” can unify his party around an “in” campaign.
Cameron doesn’t want to be remembered as the prime minister who lost Britain’s EU membership by accident but his attachment to the project is plastic. It yields under pressure from anti-Brussels hardliners. Every precedent of his nine years leading the party suggests that if he felt his security as leader depended on making yet more concessions to the Brexit camp, he would do it.
The current Downing Street line has two strengths. First, it avoids civil strife in the party – there are, after all, still a handful of pro-European Tories and a silent agnostic majority that simply wants the issue neutralised. Second, it reflects what voters appear to want. Opinion polls show support for staying in a reformed EU to be the most desired outcome – a golden mean between quitting and the status quo. The way No 10 draws the map of European policy, Ukip occupies one fringe, banging the drum for embittered isolation, with the Liberal Democrats and Labour at the other extreme, drifting towards Euro-federation. In theory, that leaves Cameron in possession of the moderate, sceptical centre.
The obstacle to holding that course is the belief that Ukip is a lost tribe of the right that needs clutching ever tighter to the Conservative bosom. So Cameron is sure to come under pressure to toughen up his line on Europe in the coming months. Tories report their referendum offer is rejected on the doorstep as counterfeit currency – just another flimsy politician’s promise. The bigger concern is the way Nigel Farage has successfully conflated views about EU membership and anxiety over immigration. Ukip voters are not all fretting about constitutional cessions of parliamentary sovereignty but they do say they want the “gates shut”, which is incompatible with participation in the single European labour market.
For Tory sceptics, the natural conclusion is that changes to the rules on free movement of workers should top Britain’s list of renegotiation demands. Other EU leaders have made it clear that the principle of porous borders is sacrosanct. In any case, there won’t be any substantive discussions before May next year because other heads of government – chiefly the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, whom Cameron regards as the pivotal figure in his plan – are waiting to see whether the Tories can survive a general election before deciding how likely the prospect of a British exit is.
Meanwhile, the UK’s diplomatic capital in Brussels is running low. Merkel is unimpressed by the decision of Tory MEPs to make common cause in the European Parliament with Alternative for Germany, a fringe party hostile to the single currency. The alliance compounds the offence caused in 2009 when Cameron took the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party (EPP) – the mainstream centre-right group of which Merkel’s Christian Democrats are lead players. German officials and diplomats are scathing about that choice, seeing it as a naive and self-defeating gesture that surrendered British influence in exchange for a moment’s respite from implacable Tory MPs. Merkel took some persuading that Cameron should be taken seriously after such an elementary blunder.
On another front, Cameron is campaigning to block the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker, a former prime minister of Luxembourg, as the next president of the European Commission. (Even quite ardent British pro-Europeans fear that Juncker’s unrepentant federalism would be counterproductive.) That the Tories would have more of a say in the matter had they stayed in the EPP is a point made with some relish by those in Brussels who are tired of British equivocation and who doubt that Cameron’s heart is really in the EU.
It is still possible that Juncker will be thwarted, in which case No 10 will boast that Cameron’s way works after all and that supine Europhiles are always too quick to surrender. But each time the Conservative leader advertises himself as the antidote to whatever is brewing in Brussels, it becomes harder to see how he can one day stand at the front of Britain’s “in” campaign.
The logic of the referendum policy is that the threat of exit must be real if other countries are to be jolted into making concessions. Yet there are no concessions that can satisfy those Tories who only ever wanted a threat of exit so that it could one day be realised.
If the Prime Minister is serious about keeping Britain inside the EU, he would stop indulging the idea that Europe is a conspiracy perpetrated by other countries against Britain. He would defend Brussels institutions and their founding principles and support, without queasy caveat, the idea of free labour movement. He would push back when his MPs nudge him towards the exit. He would declare that Conservatives do not believe “out” at all costs is a sensible position. He would, in other words, alter the trajectory of his party. He does none of those things and it is almost impossible to imagine him doing them before the election. Afterwards it may be too late.