This is the speech Cameron didn’t want ever to have to give.
Let’s be clear, David Cameron is making this speech now to try and keep the Conservatives together. The threat from Ukip and the party’s right has proved too powerful to withstand. Offering a referendum was no longer an option open to him: it was an inevitability forced on him by the Tory Eurosceptic wing. Cameron has put party interest before national interest.
Cameron’s had a good day…
His speech was well-crafted and well-delivered. A Prime Minister has the power to set the agenda: that’s what Cameron has done today. Lib Dem members may not have liked it, but its core message is likely to have appealed to many (potential) Lib Dem voters: in favour of British membership of the EU, but on British terms. Both the Lib Dems and Labour will have to follow suit now and commit to a referendum, too. We shouldn’t kid ourselves — the Tories will get a significant poll boost from this, just as Cameron did after his faux-veto in December 2011. Having the right-wing press lined up behind him will give Tory MPs a fillip, as Tim Montgomerie points out.
… BUT tomorrow’s another day
The speech has worked, for now. He will get a hero’s welcome from his backbenchers at PMQs today, something he’s not heard in the last nine months. Then there’s tomorrow and the dawning realisation that all his problems remain: Ukip are still the only major anti-EU party; the Tories remain obsessed by Europe; and Cameron has committed himself to years of detailed negotiations at a time when his focus should be fully on the economy.
The devil’s in the detail
Cameron’s bought off Tory Eurosceptics for a while. But it’s already clear where the next set of battlelines will be drawn: which powers should be repatriated in order to secure the best deal for the UK that’s also acceptable to the other 26 member nations of the EU? When I was on BBC Radio 5Live earlier, Liam Fox made clear he wants the UK relationship to revert “back to a Common Market”. But Cameron knows he hasn’t a hope in hell of achieving that. His speech specifically advocates the role of the EU in tackling climate change and organised crime – that’s a significant departure from the Tory Fresh Start group’s position. As Lord Ashcroft points out, the more the Tories talk about Europe the less likely it is they will win in 2015. Good luck with stopping ‘em, m’Lord!
It’s a high stakes strategy
Significant chunks of Cameron’s speech could have been delivered by a Lib Dem (in substance if not rhetoric): pro-EU, pro-reform, pro-referendum. However, the Lib Dems have always said, rightly, that you cannot hope to negotiate unilaterally; that reform is best achieved through negotiation. It’s just possible Cameron’s approach will work, that he will achieve what Margaret Thatcher did in 1984 with the British budget rebate. But the EU is much bigger now than then, which means our power is that much more diluted. And other European powers are unlikely to take kindly to a deadline being set by which they must gain agreement with a Eurosceptic Tory party.
David Cameron is betting the UK’s future relationship with our biggest trading market on the basis of his personal powers of persuasion. One thing’s for sure: I wouldn’t want to be in his chaussures.
* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from May 2007 to Jan 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.