One of the more charming aspects of politics is the way politician’s attack lines usually end up being used against them. Think of Tony Blair’s attack on the corruption of the Major era conservative party or the irony of Margaret Thatcher’s “Labour isn’t working” as unemployment topped three million.
Now David Cameron, having generated a great deal of political capital by contrasting his leadership with the dithering, calculating, positioning politics of our Prime Minister, finds himself dithering over a referendum, calculating exactly how eurosceptic he needs to be to satisfy his party and carefully trying to position himself for any future negotiation over Europe.
It’s all rather delicious, made even more so that the example he seems to be following, almost to the letter, is that of the master tactician, ditherer and calaculator, Harold Wilson.
However, before getting on with the pointing and the laughing, a few words of caution for my Labour brethren. Watching David Cameron squirm upon this hook is amusing, but it will not change a great deal. Whenever William Hague or IDS or Michael Howard launched some withering Euroceptic attack on the government, we would comfort ourself with the thought that Europe was not a priority for the British people.The same is true today.
The broad sweep of British public opinion is mildly anti-Brussels, but not passionately so. That scepical apathy won’t change if David Cameron makes himself look stupid over the issue of Lisbon. I can’t quite see how the Tory leader struggling with technicalities over referenda over arcane treaties will make a huge difference to that opinion.
For what David Cameron is dithering over is how to achieve two objectives. The first is to retain the benefits of membership of the EU – influence, trade, business confidence and partnerships with other powerful nations – while ensuring our nation state makes key decisions. To do this he needs to show that he is at least a reasonably constructive partner in Europe, even if he wishes to change some of the balance of power in Brussels. This is an entirely noble aim.
The second problem he faces the steps that would be needed to convince our allies of his goodwill and reasonable intentions – steps that would help him achieve his goal of a different relationship within Europe – would be loudly and angrily denounced as a sell out by many of his party. The most obvious of these steps is to allow ratification of the Lisbon Treaty.
Now, David Cameron thinks that if Lisbon is ratified, he can’t then tear it up by calling a referendum. Why do I claim that David Cameron thinks this? For the simple reason that if he didn’t, then promising a referendum on Lisbon post ratification would be an easy win.
Unfortunately, to have a post ratification vote would be tantamount to spitting in the faces of France and Germany. The rest of the EU would be very tempted to say “very well, if you vote No – out you go”. In that situation, David Cameron would be in a very awkward position.
So what will he do? It seems obvious. Before the election he quietly signals to Europe that he won’t hold a referendum, while trying to keep Eurosceptics on side by promising to “fight Britain’s corner” in other ways. This is where we are now.
Post election he will try to negotiate some package of reform with our European partners, then present whatever he gets as a diplomatic triumph and perhaps hold a referendum on that, which he will be able to endorse. In other words, he would follow the Harold Wilson playbook.
In 1974/5 Wilson led a party that was very sceptical about a European treaty signed by an opponent. Yet to tear up the treaty would be economically and diplomatically very dangerous. So instead he promised to renegotiate that treaty and vote on that. Mr Wilson went to Europe with the implied threat that if they did not give him concessions superior to that offered to Mr Heath, he would be forced, sadly and with great regret, to recommend a “no” vote, in the referendum he had promised. On that basis, he asked for change.
He got small change. Does anyone now remember the concessions Europe offered Wilson? Still, it served. Wilson was able to win the referendum, having claimed to have got a better deal than Heath. Cameron will do little better, for the same reason. His ultimate position would be a bluff. He would not wish to leave the EU, and his negotiating partners know it because if he did wish to leave he would not be negotiating. Against that background, the only question the negotiations would answer is “How much would other nations give up to allow David Cameron to save face”.
I suggest that it would not be a very great deal.
My final point about this controversy is one that will be less comforting for Labour.
Mr WIlson won his election, despite his dithering, his prevarication and his calculation.