Of all the clumsy linguistic flourishes that reverberate around the House of Commons on a daily basis, Labour MP and former Minister for Europe Denis MacShane’s deployment of “semi-pledging” today was by far the most resonant in light of David Cameron’s sudden inclination towards a referendum on the UK’s EU membership.
Because “semi” is the only way to describe it.
This latest turnaround does not even have the dignity of being called a flip-flop, as although the prime minister has jumped from dismissing Tory backbench hollering for a referendum to suggesting over the weekend that it is a viable path to follow, he has flipped right back again today to refusing to confirm a referendum plan, declining to consider legislation for securing an EU referendum in the next parliament, and telling us what the answers are not rather than what they are.
It’s a flip-flop-flip.
In the Commons today, with his signature assertive lean on the dispatch box, he gave his utmost conviction that an in-out referendum is “not the answer,” but also that “ruling out a referendum is not the answer either.” However coolly convinced he seems of what not to do, he is appeasing no group by neglecting to provide the answers of what to do – not his backbenchers, Lib Dem coalition partners, or his European counterparts.
It is perfectly reasonable that he wishes to postpone any action on the EU question at present, as he describes the European leaders as preoccupied with “fighting the fire” in the eurozone, but it would be in Cameron’s interest to slide off the fence in this instance, or to stop leaping back and forth over it, in order to allow a focused, informed debate to develop, without eurosceptics and europhiles alike having to second-guess his every future decision on the subject.
A “semi-pledge” amounts to no pledge, and because he is reluctant to wholly delight or dismay his backbenchers, Cameron is simply perpetuating the same old staid EU membership arguments, which are, ironically, distracting Britain from also “fighting the fire” in the eurozone – a crucial fight if he is to uphold his incessant enthusiasm for eventually delivering UK a deal with the EU in the “national interest.”