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Tuesday, November 10, 2015 

Cameron's reckless game of EU poker.

Reading David Cameron's Chatham House speech on Europe, and his thankfully much shorter letter to European Council president Donald Tusk, you'd be forgiven for thinking that everything about Britain is great, that Britain and Europe are great together, and that Europe itself is delighted about the Tories' weird obsession with renegotiating our very membership of the union.  It's generally very positive, bouncy stuff, optimistic with the occasional flash of steel, just to underline how serious this all is.

That the only reason Cameron has done to do any of this is because the rest of Europe was fed up to the backteeth with the coquettish act, the PM continually attending EU summits where the adults were discussing immediate, real problems, e.g. the continuing refugee crisis, refusing to help and yet still demanding that they all listen to his whinges about renegotiation while not setting out as much as the basics of what he wants to negotiate has been rather lost in the spin.  Truth is that for all the eye-rolling and harrumphing, of which there has been plenty, the rest of Europe has come to the conclusion it needs Britain.  Paradoxically, the Germans want us to stay because if we left it would leave them picking up the bill for the southern EU states to an even greater degree, while the the rest of Europe wants us to stay in order to stand up to Germany, although in reality we have far more in common with the Germans than the rest of Europe.  Confused yet?

When you then remember that Cameron's whole grand renegotiation gambit started out as a sop to his restive backbenchers, peeved he hadn't won't the election outright and were having to share power with the Lib Dems, it becomes all the more convoluted.  Their immediate response was to praise Dave to the skies: the longer-term one being to keep on pushing for renegotiation to take place now right now, for the referendum to be held the day after; and now finally, to act as though they have been betrayed once again.

For if they hadn't already got an inkling from Cameron's previous speech deriding the idea we could adopt either the Norwegian or Swiss model of not being in the EU and retaining the same influence we currently have, today's follow-up made clear Dave is committed to arguing to stay in regardless of how the renegotiation goes.  After a couple of half-hearted sentences deriding the case for staying in come what may, he then dedicates a a much longer section on how leaving would affect both our economic and national security.  He challenges his opposite numbers in Europe to meet him half-way, and for those calling for the exit to engage fully, to decide what they believe in, as the vote leave and then have a second renegotiation option isn't on the table.

Like with the Bloomberg speech, today's effort was Cameron at his best.  You can quibble with a fair amount of the content, with how jarring it is compared with the usual Tory practice of being antagonistic towards Europe for the sake of it, with precisely what he intends to renegotiate, but thought and care rather than what we normally get went into this, as it had to.  It obviously helps that Cameron is pushing at an open door, as for the most part his four areas of concern are shared by other leaders.  There's little to disagree with on his asking for there to be further protections for the member states outside the Eurozone, his request for there to be a further rolling back of regulation and increase in competitiveness was to be expected and the exemption from the "ever closer union of peoples" is there purely in an attempt to appease the paranoia of those who want the Brexit.  Not quite as achievable is the demand for something to be done about freedom of movement, but even here Cameron has accepted that his asking for there to be a four year period before EU migrants can claim benefits is not a red line.  If he gets 2 years he will probably be happy.  This doesn't alter the fact such a policy is openly discriminatory,  likely to be struck down by the courts and that even the new highly questionable statistics released to back Cameron up don't come anywhere near to proving our benefits system is a pull factor, yet it's not as though it's a surprise.

None of it is, which for many will be the problem.  Government sources have been playing down for months the renegotiations, when previously it seemed as though nothing would be ruled out for discussion.  Indeed, the encouraging of the belief this would be a fundamental reworking of our relationship with Europe, when the end result is clearly nothing of the sort has already gone down badly with the headbangers on the Tory benches.   It was always going to, but what exactly the response will be from the similarly EU-loathing press remains to be seen.

Here laid bare has been the danger of Cameron's strategy all along.  Leave aside whether this is a debate that needed to be had, and there certainly is an argument for having a referendum on our relationship with Europe to answer a question that hasn't been asked directly in 40 years, and instead look at what the Tories' route to power has been.  Their approach, one of soaking the retiring boomers, focusing on those most likely to vote, and not aggravating a media that is overwhelming predisposed towards them anyway has paid dividends.  This is obviously to simplify greatly exactly how they won in May, but that's the bedrock.  All three of these groups are, unsurprisingly, likely to share the Tories' general antipathy towards the EU.

Which leaves Cameron's chances of winning a referendum when so little overall is going to change where exactly?  If Cameron and Osborne all along have favoured remaining in the EU, as you would imagine considering negotiating an exit and hoping to get more favourable terms than Norway or Switzerland, two nations who never joined in the first place, is about as stupid a concept as it gets, then the way they have gone about this whole process has been and is so risky it boggles the mind.  It's not clear that a referendum on remaining would be winnable even if there was a fundamental renegotiation which saw exemption from unpopular policies on fisheries and freedom of movement.  Such is the way a campaign on those terms would play out, where all the money is guaranteed to be spent by the leave side and where the remain argument is bland and uninspiring, nothing can be ruled in or out.  Yes, history suggests that it takes a lot for referendum campaigns opposing the status quo to win, but it's not clear whether we can rely on either the AV referendum or the Scottish independence vote as being any guide, the latter especially when it was a debate that concentrated the minds of an entire country.

Whatever you think about the EU, the same will not be able to be said about the referendum when it does come.  Cameron can claim as often as he likes that it will be the most important vote possibly in our lifetimes; it won't be.  Leaving would be an act of self harm, just it won't be as damaging potentially as the last or the next general election.  The prime minister seems to believe that his hold on the nation is so great that he alone will be able to achieve a remain vote, when the coalition that won him his small majority will shatter irrevocably.  Why should those who plumped for anyone but the Tories deign to vote remain when Cameron has made no attempt to unite the nation beyond ludicrous, contradictory addresses to his own party?  What makes him think turnout, the probable saviour of the union in Scotland, will be above 50% on this most arcane and dullest of measures to most people, when turnout in the AV referendum was 42% and it took place on the same day as local elections? A win for leave will as Cameron said be final.  There will be no second renegotiation.  The SNP have made clear a leave vote will be an effective trigger for a second independence referendum, and there's no reason to doubt the probable result.

Perhaps then Cameron knows something we don't.  Perhaps he thinks in a battle where he will face off against the likes of Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg and the other anti-EU monomaniacs, there will only be one winner.  He could be right.  It is nonetheless a massive gamble, one that started out as a stalling measure.  If Cameron truly believes leaving that EU would be a disaster both economically and in terms of national security, then he has been cavalier, reckless in the extreme.  He's acted like a poker player with two pairs, believing his opponent is bluffing as much as he is and will fold before the stakes get too high.  Those opposed to the EU will never fold.  We'd better hope that two pair is in fact four aces.

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