David Cameron is obviously not a reader of Rumpole of the Bailey. One of Horace’s most important rules was never to ask a question to which you didn’t already know the answer. With his speech on the EU today, not only does the Prime Minister not know the answer, he’s not even sure of the question.
Politically, it’s a reasonable move in the short term. As Mr Cameron side-stepped his way to his seat in the House of Commons for the weekly farce of Prime Ministers’ Questions, he received the largest cheer from Conservative backbenchers he has perhaps ever received. Since the days of John Major’s ‘bastards’, the Tory anti-EU contingent has become the majority view amongst Tory MPs and finally, they’ve got their way and now have got five years to campaign for a no vote.
The prime minister has also rather shot UKIP’s fox. Nigel Farage – the only vaguely palatable member of the party – has always tried to claim UKIP is not a one issue pressure group, but he’s kidding himself. No one ever decided to support UKIP for their green agenda, jobs policy or social mores. Now, while they’re partly responsible for Cameron’s volte-face on Europe, they will struggle to be heard. They were never going to win a seat at the next election anyway.
Labour is left looking very vulnerable on Europe as Ed Miliband has failed to find a vaguely coherent policy. There were hints that the opposition might steal a march on the Tories with an offer of an in/out referendum; Miliband has said today he opposes one while much of his parliamentary party disagrees. After a decent 2012, Ed Miliband’s leadership is looking shaky once again.
That’s the good news for David Cameron. But already the dangers of his position are becoming exposed. The prime minister has no control on where this might go. He's trying to juggle without knowing how many balls he has in the air.
Skating over the fact that the whole referendum issue depends on whether the Tories can win an outright majority at the 2015 election – an almighty challenge considering the economy and the electoral hurdles in the way – the prime minister is very vulnerable.
Negotiations over what powers can be reclaimed by Brussels will have to begin immediately and it’s far from clear that other EU states are vaguely interested in such a conversation. Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister, was withering in his response: ‘Flexibility sounds fine, but if you open up to a 28-speed Europe, at the end of the day there is no Europe at all. Just a mess.’ The French and Germans have been similarly dismissive.
To a certain extent these comments can be swatted away; more of a concern would be the reaction of businessmen such as Martin Sorrell, whose WPP made a much-fanfared return to these shores after the last election. He said:
‘Having a referendum creates more uncertainty and we don't need that. This is a political decision. This is not an economic decision. This isn't good news. You added another reason why people will postpone investment decisions.’
Mr Cameron is committed to campaigning to stay in the EU despite not knowing for what he’ll be campaigning. Meanwhile, the majority of his party will be campaigning to leave Europe, hardly an ideal situation for the leader of a political party. And it is pretty impossible to imagine him fighting for a yes vote alongside Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair and Ed Miliband etc.
The future of the EU is of course a vital topic but it doesn’t excite; the economy, the NHS, jobs, education, energy prices, food prices, the general cost of living, these are the biggest issues facing people. Already today the IMF has cut its growth forecast to a paltry 1 per cent year and slashed it for 2014 too; Osborne remains clueless as to how to get things going again.
Once, Mr Cameron criticised his own party for ‘banging on about Europe’, with this speech the same looks set to occur for another five years despite poll after poll shows it comes very low down on voters’ list of priorities. Any level of political navel gazing on Europe is depressing; five years’ worth is almost enough to drive one to Dignitas.
It’s a shame John Mortimer is no longer with us. His later Rumpole tales featured thinly veiled attacks on Labour’s human rights; I can only imagine what fun he’d have with this lot.