It should always serve as a warning sign of complacency when we think we know the order in which things will play out. Yesterday’s speech by David Cameron made clear his plans for renegotiation followed by a 2017 In-Out referendum. While we can all argue about whether this is a fantastic move or a huge strategic mistake, it superficially looked like Europe was an issue the Prime Minister could now file under Non-Urgent. The crucial when and how details on the renegotiations – and the referendum is dependent on the Conservatives being in power after the next general election − will not begin for some time and he can focus on the economy, the Maghreb terrorist threat, gay marriage and other issues requiring his attention.
Some very astute observers of the Conservative Party pointed out that now the speech has finally be made, Europe should not remain an issue that dominates the party to the detriment of others more important to the public. Certainly, the Conservative leadership will not want to keep ‘banging on’ about it.
Perfect plans in politics don’t often work out that way and I’m wondering if this hope is forlorn. Yesterday I bumped into a Conservative MP belonging to the Fresh Start Group (aka ‘The eurosceptic group who want to get jobs from David Cameron’) who had lunched with a veteran Eurosceptic figure. This was an interesting meet-up in itself but the veteran had used the opportunity to map out his strategic vision of what will now happen.
The précis is that the central European bloc will digest David Cameron’s speech and decide to act much faster than is predicted to block serious renegotiation by Britain. Cameron will see his timetable towards 2017 fall apart in the face of this implacable opposition. Having spelled out his wish to hold a referendum, the PM will have no alternative but to announce a referendum before the 2015 election. The public will vote for us to leave the EU.
Now, you can spot wishful thinking throughout this dream sequence from our veteran Eurosceptic. But it also shows another crucial point. Europe isn’t an issue that the Conservatives will simply stop talking about. It’s far too important to enough of them to ensure that David Cameron’s speech has simply created a significant new development. These Eurosceptics view it as a real chance for Britain to leave the EU. Far from dealing with the issue, Cameron could have exacerbated the amount of time his party will spend discussing Europe before the next election.