Eddie Barnes: Sceptic speech buys PM some time

Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: Getty
Prime Minister David Cameron. Picture: Getty
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A LABOUR MP noted last week how, prior to the speech, he found himself sharing a lift in the Commons with a prominent Tory backbencher. The pair exchanged small talk about the prime minister.

The Labour MP asked his opponent for his view on what would happen if Britain just allowed itself to carry on in the EU as at present. “This place will become the Reichstag,” the Conservative exclaimed.

Such are the emotional forces which swept David Cameron to the gloomy conference rooms of the Bloomberg offices in the City of London last week. For Eurosceptics in his party, the wait for the speech to be made was worth it.

The pledge is clear: if the UK returns a Conservative majority government in 2015, there will be a UK-wide referendum on whether to stay or go – and a renegotiation of the country’s relationship with Brussels before it.

Cameron had started the week facing rumours of a backbench plot to unseat him, amid growing anger over the lack of direction within No 10. By Wednesday lunchtime, as he walked into Prime Minister’s Questions, those same backbenchers were stamping their feet in praise of a man who, in the words of arch “no” campaigning MEP Daniel Hannan, had given “the most Eurosceptic speech ever by a British prime minister”.

Encouraging polls published last night might suggest

that the speech has bought Cameron some much-needed breathing space from a party which has still to forgive him for not winning the election in 2010. But the question is whether Cameron may now have to march those happy troops all the way back down the hill again.

The answer to that question lies primarily back at the Tory MP’s feared destination: ­Berlin. For it will be the EU’s powerhouse Germany which will largely dictate whether, should the crunch come, the European Union will accept Cameron’s demands for a

renegotiated deal with the rest of the continent.

Downing Street was cock-a-hoop on Wednesday evening when German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared her preparedness to talk about a new deal. Her words, however, were deliberately cautious. “We are prepared to talk about British wishes but we must ­always bear in mind that

other countries have different wishes and we must find a fair compromise,” she said.

For starters, Merkel – along with everyone else – is not yet clear as to what exactly Cameron is demanding. Is it an overhaul of EU treaties? Or an end to unnecessary legislation? Many European analysts rate Cameron’s chances of major treaty change along the lines his fellow Eurosceptics would like as nil. It is likely that any renegotiation Cameron embarks on after 2015 will only be at the margins: devo-lite rather than devo-max.

Such a revised deal may be welcomed by business. The Scottish Chambers of Commerce declared last week that it is “right” to look again at the EU to ensure that “Europe is driven by economic needs and not the other way around”.

But it would categorically fail to satisfy those Eurosceptics for whom nothing less than

either “devo-max” or complete withdrawal will do.

Professor Michael Keating, the chair of Scottish politics at Aberdeen University, says Cameron is leading his troops up a cul-de-sac.

“He has made this pledge

to renegotiate, but it is

something he simply cannot deliver,” he adds.

All this future strife will only come about if Cameron manages to do in 2015 what he failed to do in 2010 – and win the election with a majority. As a prime minister backing EU membership in a referendum, he would then be in a stronger position to face down the ­Eurosceptic wing in his party.

The great Tory split over ­Europe was dodged again last week. Cameron’s gamble is that, if and when a rebellion comes, he will be powerful enough to handle it.