Sometimes politicians are tactical rather than strategic. They seek short-term fixes to their problems without thinking about the long-term consequences. They get good reviews on the day but the plan soon unravels. That is certainly the story of David Cameron’s Europe speech on Wednesday. He received plaudits from his backbenches and temporarily discomfited Ed Miliband, but at the cost of creating long-term problems for his party and the country.
I have spent most of my life involved in diplomatic negotiations of one sort or another, including 10 years in No 10 wrestling with EU matters. From a purely negotiating point of view, I have seldom seen a weaker opening hand than that which Cameron dealt Britain in his speech on Wednesday.
First, if you issue an ultimatum, the “or else” needs to be something the others really don’t want to happen. Most of the other 27 members would rather we didn’t leave the EU, but they are not going to pay a serious price to persuade us to stay, especially if we are planning to stay partially in the union.
Second, you get your way in the EU by building alliances. Cameron’s emphasis on competitiveness as the key challenge for Europe is laudable, and widely shared. As a “pre-in” during the Blair years, we could attract allies, for example, to stop the French and Germans sticking the Belgian Guy Verhofstadt into the top job. But nobody is going to want to form an alliance with Britain if we are a “pre-out”. By indicating he will leave if he doesn’t get his way, Cameron has just destroyed his chances of securing any allies.
Third, all Cameron is really saying is that if there is treaty change, there will be a referendum. That pretty much goes without saying. We proposed a referendum on the constitutional treaty, but then didn’t have to go through with it because the French and Dutch voted the treaty down first. It is precisely because Angela Merkel knows that treaty change would require a referendum – not just in Britain but in other European countries – that she is avoiding a new treaty. If there is no new intergovernmental conference, how does Cameron get a negotiation going inside the EU when nobody else wants one? And even if there were to be a new treaty, the last one took 10 years to negotiate, so we wouldn’t be having a referendum till 2023.
Last, the government has said that it will set out the changes it is seeking in its next manifesto for us all to see. So if the other Europeans were to decide to make some concessions to help him out, it would be perfectly apparent to his backbenches and the Eurosceptic press that he had achieved only a few cosmetic changes. In those circumstances, how could he lead a campaign with all his “heart and soul” for Britain to remain in Europe?
Cameron has therefore set up circumstances in which he cannot succeed. The long-term consequences of snookering himself and the country so completely are twofold. First, far from solving the division within the Conservative party, this will make matters worse. Cameron has just fired the starting gun on a five-year no campaign.
Eurosceptics will spend the intervening period doing nothing but “banging on about Europe”, and Conservative candidates at the next election will no doubt face demands to pledge to vote to leave the EU or face a Ukip challenge. The Corn Laws ripped the Tory party apart in the 19th century, imperial preference (free trade within the British Empire) in the early 20th, and it looks like Europe will do the same in the 21st.
Second, while I don’t for a moment imagine Cameron wants to be the prime minister who takes Britain out of Europe, he has set things up in such a way that there is real risk he will do so by mistake. An in-out referendum in this country could be won. But only with political leadership of the sort we saw in 1975. Since Cameron can’t say whether he will vote yes or no until he has secured all his demands, the field will be left to the anti campaign.
Cameron will have enjoyed the applause on Wednesday, but he and the rest of us will come to rue the day.
Jonathan Powell was chief of staff to Tony Blair 1997-2007.