David Cameron is all set for the chess game of his life

Written by George Pascoe-Watson on 18 February 2016 in Opinion
As the PM reaches the culmination of seven months of meetings with EU leaders, he cannot afford to be caught off guard by any outflanking manoeuvre or dire warning.  

David Cameron must become world class negotiator, poker player, chess grand master, diplomat and policy wonk as he strives to pull off his historic EU deal tonight.

The PM will effectively be playing 28-dimensional chess as he tries to stitch up a package to sell to the British people in a June referendum. And even when he returns triumphant he faces the nightmare of keeping the Conservative Party together.

Some say it is this feat which will be the most significant of his victories, assuming he wins the referendum.  It’s worth taking a closer look at the pressures on the PM today, tonight and beyond – assuming that his decision to pack three shirts turns out to be an accurate prediction of the marathon length of this summit.

Seven months of meetings with EU leaders have led to this moment. He has had a formidable “corner”, to use a boxing term.  Tom Scholar the chief Sherpa, Craig Oliver the political and communications director, UKrep ambassador Sir Ivan Rogers, the PM’s private secretary for foreign affairs Nigel Casey and chief of staff Ed Llewellyn have all put in a shift.

But when showtime comes, only Mr Cameron is on the stage. The requirements are enormous. No single human being can possibly hope to execute all disciplines perfectly in the room.

He must have the policy understanding of the wonks who dream this stuff up. He must know where the weaknesses in the policy are, the most minor details where the devil lurks. His grasp of diplomatic and policy language must be on a par with that of an English Literature don.

Language matters. A dot or comma here, a square bracket there and the shape of Britain’s future can be changed forever. Mr Cameron must also be a diplomat. He must be able to put himself in the mind of each of the 27 other leaders and understand what their winning ground is.

What do they seek to achieve? Nothing must phase him. No outflanking manoeuvre, no theatrical display, no flouncing, no threat, no dire warning must catch him off guard. He must show mettle like never before. There may be moments when the Eton boxer comes into its own. 

David Cameron can do tough, as anyone who’s spent time with him know. Everything rests on his shoulders. He, alone, represents his and Britain’s interests. Drop the ball, blink, show weakness, misread the moment or the room, and live with the consequences. Remember, too, that his success or failure – however perceived – will have a significant impact on his ability to fight and win a referendum to keep Britain in the EU. And on that decision rests his political life.

Will he secure a deal? Yes, in all likelihood. Why? The leaders of most EU countries are beginning to work out that they, too, could follow his lead and demand better membership conditions themselves. And that’s something the Commission cannot let happen.

But even when he returns to London there begins perhaps an even bigger fight. The war, perhaps, not just the battle. Here he has to win over his Cabinet – or the vast bulk of it save the known outers.

IDS, Chris Grayling and others are bound to make their voices clear. And so they should. Brexit is something they believe in their souls. This is their moment. But what of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove?

Boris is said by some in number 10 to making a strategic mess of his position. His flirtation.  It’s a major source of frustration to Mr Cameron and some think the Premier is too easily distracted by his former schoolchum’s politicking.

What, too, of the Justice Secretary. He’s thought to be having a “long, dark night of the soul” on this one. I know Mr Gove well on this subject. He and I once formed a formidable debating team on the side of Euroscepticism.  I well understand his anxieties. Heart versus head. I think head will win.

But go beyond the Cabinet there’s the Parliamentary party. Then there’s the Conservative membership. Don’t ignore the corporate world – big, international business versus the small and medium-sized businesses representing more than 90% of the UK economy.

The media are flaying the PM on a daily basis and that’s not likely to end any time soon. Will The Sun, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph call for their readers to support Brexit? Will they still have the clout to count? The evidence from the General Election shows that the media in full voice can persuade a wavering public with decisive consequences. Mr Cameron was the clear beneficiary of this back in May.

And then the most important audience of all come June 23 – the British public. Readers will forgive my hesitation in rehearsing the pollsters’ findings. They don’t count right now.

Win the referendum and Mr Cameron is free to pursue his own vision until stepping down in 2020.  Safe in the knowledge Britain will be a Conservative-led country for a generation or two to come. 



Share this page

Add new comment

More from Total Politics