Cameron Pledges an “In/Out” Referendum on a Reformed EU
Today’s long awaited speech by David Cameron was not delivered against an auspicious background. For a start the delivery date had to be moved several times, to avoid conflict with Franco-German celebrations and then because of the Algerian hostage crisis. There were also siren voices providing unsolicited advice from all sides of the argument, both domestic and foreign. Having announced that a speech was to be given David Cameron had little choice but to deliver one. Various commentators suggested that he was in a dangerous position; anything he said would be likely to reopen historic splits in his party, frighten the markets, and offer his political opponents an open goal. The EU and Britain’s relationship with it is something which excites deep passions amongst those who have a formed opinion but also extreme boredom amongst large swathes of the electorate. To blunder into a speech without knowing what he wanted to achieve and the likely reactions to it would invite certain disaster.
I was therefore rather nervous about the speech and the possible hostage to fortune it posed. I listened to David Cameron deliver it this morning on my way to work. He spoke with confidence and clarity about his vision for a more flexible and less bureaucratic EU which respects the differences between nations, and stated his determination to lead a drive to protect and expand the single market. He rejected the EU aspiration of “ever closer union” and described the reforms he wanted to see which, if enacted, would see an EU that is far more aligned to what I hear so many people from across the political spectrum say they want. His concluding remarks set out the terms for a binding “in/out” referendum in the next Parliament. This was music to the ears of Eurosceptics of all parties, whilst his pledge to campaign to stay inside a reformed EU will reassure Europhiles.
Cameron’s tone throughout the speech was measured and convincing. He introduced the speech well and developed his argument logically with specific examples. His message was clear:
1. Britain firmly supports and wants to develop the single market but resents the “one size fits all” approach of the Commission
2. A more flexible and outward looking EU is in the interests of all member states
3. Britain will press for the ability to repatriate powers for all nations whilst pressing Britain’s specific case
4. When the renegotiation is complete the whole package will be put to the British people in a referendum when the choice will be simple, stay in a reformed EU or leave
Of course the package is conditional on the election of a Conservative government in 2015 with a working majority. If the Conservatives are in coalition with the Lib Dems once again they would likely veto any referendum. Despite months of notice of the speech and its likely content, Labour was caught flat-footed. At Prime Minister’s Questions today Labour leader Ed Miliband attacked Cameron’s speech and confirmed that he would not call a referendum, only for Labour spin doctors to seek to reverse the position immediately. Other senior Labour spokespeople were equally at sea on radio and TV during the day.
What was more surprising was the universal praise from all sections of opinion in the Parliamentary Conservative Party. Hardened Eurosceptics were singing David Cameron’s praises, while Europhiles welcomed his commitment to campaign for the UK to stay within a reformed EU. In one speech Cameron has united his party, exposed Labour’s inconsistency, marginalised UKIP and put clear blue water between the Conservatives and Lib Dems. A side benefit may well also be uniting the bulk of the print media behind a totemic Conservative Party policy.
I suspect that we will see a small boost to the Conservative position in the polls with the Labour lead narrowing further over the next week or so. Whether that lasts will be dependent on many factors, especially a credible Budget and an improving economic situation. The Government was given some good news today with a further fall in unemployment, a record number in employment, and a fall in the long term unemployed numbers. With the stockmarket continuing to climb the signs are there that we are heading into calmer waters. Even the higher than expected borrowing figures released this week undermine Labour’s economic case that what we need is more borrowing!
Very rarely is a single speech or a single event transformational but I think that today’s speech will prove to be one such event.
Watch the full speech here: