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Davd Herdson: Cameron must be clear that he might vote No

January 26th, 2013

He can’t go on dodging the question?

David Cameron’s speech on the UK’s future relationship with the EU has certainly set the political agenda for the week. Almost as soon as he made it, however, two questions were asked that will dog him if he continues to answer as he did at the time: what specifically do you want back, and what happens if you don’t get them?

One danger that lies in the former is that the list of red lines will be necessarily short, both in order to ‘win’ more should the negotiations take place and so as not to start with too high a bid that the other EU members can’t accept, which will not satisfy the more ardent and insistent sceptics. Another is it’s the wrong question. Cameron’s speech was not really about opt-outs (though he’d probably settle for that should it come to it), but about rolling back the frontiers of the EU to all members; putting the principle of subsidiarity into practice. In other words, it wasn’t about winners and losers or picking and choosing.

That’s important because he is addressing directly the reason why the Tories went from being the pro-EC party in the 1980s to the sceptical one, and vice-versa with Labour, and why – if he is successful in clearing the many hurdles between now and 2017 – it may be again. Put simply, it’s about rejecting the Delors social policy and regulation / standardisation agenda and getting back to competition. Or, if you prefer, it’s an attempt to ingrain a centre-right rather than centre-left agenda at the Commission.

    It is not inevitable that Conservatives will always be sceptical or hostile to the EU but it is inevitable that they will be to the kind of body it is now.

Which brings us to the second question: what if he can’t get his way? The reality is that he’d have no choice but to vote and campaign for No but to do so, having made a passionate case for membership in principle, would be deeply, probably fatally, damaging to him – which is why he almost certainly won’t say he didn’t get his way. The bigger problem would be if his party disagreed and he couldn’t sell the deal to them.

That, however, is more than four years down the line. For the moment, he’ll lose support if he doesn’t at least admit the possibility. Of course no-one goes into negotiations expecting to fail but they do usually know the consequences of doing so. In this case, as everyone else can work out the consequences, it does no harm to admit them. In any case, as Conservative waverers are probably the swing vote in an In/Out referendum, Cameron’s ability and willingness to lead his party on the issue is of no small interest to other EU members.

Will it make a big difference to the outcome of the next election? Not hugely of itself, though a Tory Party united (and hence quietish) on a European policy will improve his chances. Of much more significance are the record rise in employment over the last year, and the fourth contraction in GDP in five quarters, and which one of those trends sustains.

David Herdson