Boris Johnson tells us it’s all sorted: David Cameron is going to make his long-awaited ‘tantric’ speech on the EU ‘within weeks’ and he’s going to offer an in-out referendum.
You will recall that this speech has been kicked back several times since the summer and that Cameron himself has given nothing more than veiled suggestions of what might (or might not) be in it.
The unfortunate effect of all this is that the speech is becoming ever more important to all involved, because of the potential it holds for moving British debate forwards from its current ‘phoney war’ status. For sceptics, it will be point where the game is properly afoot, a referendum is called and they can realise their goal of withdrawal; for pro-EU elements, it will either kick a referendum into the long grass, hopefully not to be seen again, or if a vote is called then it will mobilise the currently passive pro-EU constituency to follow in Tony Blair‘s wake in speaking out.
The reason for the delay is also pretty obvious: Cameron doesn’t know (or can’t decide) what to say. As Bagehot noted in The Economist recently, Cameron is hemmed in on one side by his increasingly radical backbenchers and on the other by the clear recognition that moving out of the EU will only marginalise the UK more.
In brief, there would appear to be a number of options of what he could say:
- Offer an in-out vote this parliament. This is the sceptic maximalist option and very unlikely, given the pressure on parliament’s time, the long list of other (economic) priorities, the likely sundering of the coalition and the current sets of EU negotiations where the UK is already struggling to be heard;
- Offer in-out next parliament. Less unlikely, since it offers the possibility of bouncing other parties into making the same commitment and (if we believe the polls) making it Labour’s ‘fault’ for falling out of the EU. However, it remains unlikely precisely because it would make it much more likely to tie politicians’ hands on future policy and Cameron has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t want to exit (in line with Labour and the Lib Dems);
- Offer a consultative vote sometime to give a mandate to renegotiate membership. This side-steps exit (at least initially) and potentially gives HMG a strong hand to ‘go to Brussels’ to secure concessions. However, the mood across the EU is not a positive one, especially given the big push on EMU reforms, and it’s not hard to see ‘renegotiations’ turning out much like 1974, i.e. nothing of substance. It would also then presumably lead to a second vote on whether to accept the new terms, bringing exit back on the table;
- Offer no vote, but instead set out his policy of critical engagement, defending British interests, etc. Also unlikely, mainly because it would cause uproar in his party and severely dent his ability to lead them. At best, this would end up just kicking the issue down the road a short distance, only for it to return with heightened calls for its resolution.
Ultimately, there are no good options left for Cameron. His actions over the parliament (and before) have gradually exposed the flaws in his EU policy: ‘let’s not talk about it’ has been taken by backbenchers to mean that Cameron is with them on leaving the EU, when it actually just means ‘let’s not keep scaring voters that we’ve got nothing else to discuss.’
As Christmas approaches, Cameron is left in an invidious position of his own making. Whatever he does, it will have lasting repercussions.