Today’s debate in the Commons on holding a referendum on EU membership very simply highlights the dangers of the issue for David Cameron. Remember that he was the leader who finally poured balm on what had been a very divisive topic for the Conservatives, although it not appears that this was largely by the expedient of not talking about it any more than necessary, rather than any fundamental resolution. Whereas leaders such as Hague and Duncan-Smith has attempted to control the issue by giving it fuller expression, Cameron was astute enough to recognise that given the low level of public interest in the matter, the best thing was to park it all to one side. This strategy was helped by the situation after the Lisbon treaty, where further integration wasn’t on the table and the risks of being caught out appeared minimal.
That gamble has not paid off: Cameron’s hand is now been forced by the ever-more sceptic parliamentary party, just at a time when the need to appear as a constructive partner in the eurozone crisis has never been greater. The UK is a part of both the European and the global economy, especially because of its financial sector and disengagement isn’t a possibility in either case. What happens in the eurozone will affect Britain, and not just because of its banks, but because of its deep trading links and the need for export-led economic recovery. But it is very difficult for George Osborne to be a honest broker in ECOFIN when his party is talking openly about how to leverage any treaty reform to British advantage.
Indeed the result of today’s vote possibly matters less than the simple fact of its taking place at all: it sets up all the wrong kinds of mood music: President Sarkozy’s comments yesterday expressed that very clearly, and he is unlikely to be the last. At best, today’s debate and vote will be an unwelcome distraction; at worst, it will fatally compromise the government’s ability to have any European policy worth the name. Like every one of his predecessors, Cameron is finding that not liking Europe is very rarely compatible with being able to ignore it.