David Cameron’s long awaited and long delayed speech on Europe finally arrived and many have described it as a ‘pivotal’, ‘epoch-defining’ speech. It may or may not be that – we will have to wait a few years to know for sure. But I sense it will be. It appears to have achieved two things immediately. The text of the speech seems to appeal to both the pro-European and anti-European factions within his party by calling for an in-out referendum whilst signalling a strong desire to stay within a ‘reformed European Union’. In fact the message will make the pro-European conservatives very nervous about a ‘gamble’ that the electorate will want to stay in under any circumstances when opinion polls suggest a majority want out. But they are likely to be a lot quieter than the rowdy Euro-sceptics have been in recent months. The Lib Dems are clearly unhappy about Cameron’s speech and you only have to watch Nick Clegg’s face in the House of Commons today to see that.
The wild cheering by the bank-bench Tories in Prime Minister’s Questions shows that you underestimate Cameron at your cost. He has, in a matter of hours, re-energised his party, put off the many thorny issues of Europe to a date after the next election, shown Labour and the Lib Dems to be out of touch with the UK voting public and made UKIP look faintly irrelevant. It’s an astonishing move – a high wire balancing act that may come unstuck, but after yesterday's PMQs – it looks as if he has pulled it off.
Ed Miliband put on a brave face and landed a few well aimed digs: ‘He’s been driven to it not by the national interest, but been dragged to it by his party’. However, you sense Cameron’s confidence rising as fires back: ‘We want to reset that relationship. He hasn’t got a clue what he’d do.’ Worst of all, Milband seemed skewered by the simple choice Cameron gave him: ‘The most basic question of all is do you want a referendum? Yes or no? I do, does he?’ To which Miliband replied: ‘My position is no, we don’t want a referendum’.
If George Osborne is competent enough to put a little life (and investment) back in the economy before 2015 the Tories could be riding high on Cameron’s promise of ‘a renegotiation and then a referendum’. While the exact details of that renegotiation are only hinted at it’s clear that Cameron favours a more ‘market-friendly’ Europe. In PMQs he shouted above the yells of approval from his party: ‘We’ve been very clear about what we want to see - change. In a whole series of areas social legislation, employment legislation, environmental legislation where Europe has gone far too far.’ So the negotiation would seek an end to 48 hour maximum working week, an end to talk of a Financial Transaction Tax (something that could reduce speculation and raise much needed revenues), an end to some of the basic environmental protections that have been passed in Brussels. He is also holding out the promise of an end to ‘meddling’ by the European Court of Human Rights. All red meat to conservative Daily Mail reading voters. Not so great for those looking for a more progressive European Union.
There’s a long way to go yet – the German-French axis may upset Cameron’s plans where Labour and the LibDems cannot. Voters may decide that Europe is a distraction from the real issues.There are many ifs and buts and winning the 2015 election (the condition for any changes to existing European treaties) is the biggest ‘if’ of all. But I suspect Clegg knows that the Lib Dem’s are a busted flush now. Cameron has used them to prop up an unpopular round of savage austerity cuts and to triple the cost of university fees (against Clegg’s signed pledge not to increase them). This may seem like yesterday’s news now but wait for the election when voters are reminded constantly of it. The I’m sorry spoof video viewed by over 2 million people will almost certainly be playing on Nick Clegg’s political gravestone in 2015. But it may just be that in an adjoining plot Cameron’s speech on Europe will be playing on another headstone – that of Ed Miliband.
Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg – your move.
Programme Leader: BA Politics and Media
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