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The EU Referendum: David Cameron’s Big Gamble

Huw EvansAs regular readers of this blog will know, I like my ‘5 points’ as a device to present an argument. Today the PM was at it as well – pivoting his EU speech around 5 principles on which the future relationship with the EU should revolve ahead of a 2017 membership referendum.  While each of the principles could merit a blog on their own, here are my 5 initial thoughts on the most important speech of David Cameron’s premiership.

1.    This was a strong speech, borne from a position of weakness. The speech itself was elegantly written and coherently argued, deliberately written in a way that would feel centrist and be palatable to Berlin (if not to Brussels). But it is borne out of weakness because the moderniser David Cameron who publicly argued that the Tory focus on Europe was off-putting to swing voters is being forced to confront the EU in a way he always wanted to avoid. Why? Because the EU is changing significantly thanks to the Eurozone crisis and because his 2010 intake of MPs is much more energized by Europe than he is and simply will not countenance him sweeping the issues under the carpet.

2.    This move is a fusion of high principle and political calculation.  Forced to address an issue he had hoped to sidestep, David Cameron has focused on the principles he genuinely believes should define the UK’s relationship with the EU and on which he would be personally comfortable negotiating and campaigning. But this is also about reframing the Conservatives electoral strategy for the 2015 election to minimize UKIP impact and put Labour on the spot with the traditionally Eurosceptic swing voters of middle and Southern England.  This is a PM who, whatever he may say in public, has accepted that the Coalition debacle over the boundary review has lost him 20 seats in 2015 and is calculating his political strategy accordingly.

3.    There are two big gambles at the heart of this new approach. The first is that the EU will change enough over the next few years in response to the Eurozone crisis to require a new treaty, under the cover of which the UK can attempt a renegotiation. Without a new treaty, the UK won’t be allowed to renegotiate bilaterally. Even with a new treaty, he is gambling that the Germans and the French want the UK in enough to allow a process and set of outcomes that the PM could present as a revised living arrangement. The second gamble is that with a possible 4.5 years until a referendum, the Eurosceptic train won’t steamroller public opinion and set the bar for a successful renegotiation impossibly high. Eurosceptic media outlets were positive about David Cameron this morning having been briefed for this morning’s papers on a 2017 ‘In/Out’ referendum but only the most naïve political advisor would assume they have been bought off for the next four years. Don’t forget that the proprietors of both the Sun and the Telegraph are not domiciled in the EU.

4.    The speech was a reminder of how good the PM at his best can be. In its precision, its presentation, its centrist positioning and its synthesis of principle, strategy and history, this was a first rate political performance and a reminder that David Cameron remains the outstanding politician of his generation.  As such, it is a reminder of his skills that to his supporters will tantalise as much as it will please.  This is what a speech looks like when David Cameron applies his first rate intellect and considerable political brain to it.  The problem for Tory strategists remains how much time the PM still uses up delivering speeches plugging underwhelming government initiatives that struggle to survive a news cycle.  This PM performs at his best when he is engaged with big issues that challenge his intellect – something the No 10 operation often seems oblivious to. 

5.    Business leaders will be critical to the final referendum outcome. Whatever the outcome of the negotiations, whatever the next four years holds, the YES campaign in 2017 will focus on jobs and the future of the UK economy. The UK’s big corporates – whether in insurance or any other sector – will not be able to sit on the fence on this one; Boards of companies with significant UK and EU businesses will have to take a public view on EU membership just as the PM has been forced to today.  What they say about the impact of EU exit could be a decisive factor for undecided voters.


Last updated 29/06/2016