Talking Politics

Cameron will soon come to regret this ill-advised speech

David Cameron is about to get a lot of very good press. The British media loves it when a prime minister looks strong and decisive. After many months of to-ing and fro-ing, Cameron is finally the agent in a massive, interwoven, continent-wide political narrative. He is blackmailing Paris and Berlin to the negotiating table with the not-so-subtle suggestion Britain will leave the EU altogether if it doesn't get more "flexible" membership. He is calling the bluff of Ed Miliband, who predicted Cameron wouldn't offer a referendum and must now either follow his lead or stand against public opinion. And he has, at least for the time being, pacified his backbenchers, whose rebelliousness was becoming election-threatening.

In the short term, Cameron is man of the hour. The eurosceptic right-wing press (in other words: majority of the press) will praise him in gushing tones tomorrow morning. But in the long term, he has taken an extraordinary gamble over which he has very little control. The simple facts of the matter are these: He has all his cards on the table. He has no room to manoeuvre. But his negotiating partners have plenty.

Cameron's threat and his promise have both been made public. He wants to be in the EU, he told us this morning, and he wants to campaign for a yes vote "with all my heart and soul". But for that he needs a new membership from Brussels, with which Britain is "comfortable". He wasn't able to say if he would campaign for a 'no' vote if Britain isn't given what it wants, but the threat was clear. It was, to all intents and purposes, the rather inelegant one George Osborne made this weekend: give us what we want or we're off.

Cameron has some advantages in this regard. Germany would be distressed to see a country of the UK's size and clout leave the project. They will grudgingly partake in negotiations, but they will rather see Britain leave than allow a pick-and-choose EU, with each member trying to pick the raisins out the bun, as one minister said recently.

The negotiations will not be favourable to Britain. The odds are stacked against Cameron because he has shown his stick and revealed his carrot. Everything is on the table. The same is not true for European leaders. They can force Cameron to accept almost any level of reformed membership, because it will spare him the awkward position of going into an EU referendum fighting for a 'no' vote. He already laid the groundwork for this with a description of an ideal EU which was fairly busy. It included poverty reduction, crime, energy and climate change in addition to a fully fleshed-out single market.

As one journalist put it to him today, Cameron could be the prime minister who saw Britain exit the European Union. On an emotional level, this thought will weigh particularly heavily on a leader who is already overseeing a referendum on Scottish independence. How will history judge him if both these historic events go against him?
No wonder Cameron looked tired and decidedly nervous as he gave his speech today. Not only are his cards revealed to other European leaders, they are also revealed to the world. The prime minister is at the centre of a storm and he is the only one chained to his position.

The eurozone crisis is merely stalled. It has not stopped. Britain's own debt is such that no country in a similar position has ever emerged unscathed. All it takes is for a rise in interest rates and the markets may well lose confidence in our ability to pay it back. The four-year period before the referendum is full of so many variables ("events, dear boy, events") that it is impossible to envisage what 2017, the likely date of the referendum, will look like. And amid all this Cameron is the only person who must pursue his political agenda come what may, for he has nailed his colours to the mast, unlike every other important actor one cares to mention. This is the equivalent of Blair announcing when he would leave Downing Street, but magnified by a hundred. It is a lash with which his opponents will be able to whip the prime minister for years to come.

Labour is in a dubious position because of its inability to come to a position on the referendum. But Miliband's central argument is right: this is not the behaviour of a strong prime minister, even if in the short term it makes him look strong. It is the behaviour of a weak prime minister, because no sane politician would make himself so vulnerable unless the only other option was party mutiny.

The joyous rebelliousness of his backbenchers reduced Cameron's options to one: do what they want. He took this option rather than the road which led to having unruly backbenchers during a general election. It may indeed have been the lesser of two evils. It has certainly, whichever way you look at it, increased his chances of winning the general election. But it is fundamentally a weak act, and one which will make him weaker still the closer we get to 2017.

Cameron should enjoy this week's headlines. They may not stay so positive once the ramifications of his speech become clear.

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