You can almost hear the sound of the goalposts being dragged across the turf as David Cameron marks out the pitch for next summer’s political version of the European Championships.
Once again it is the plucky old Brits versus, at the last count, 27 turbulent Continental rivals. But the PM is confident that he will be able to persuade them to set up the contest in such a way that he will emerge triumphant from his In/Out referendum.
Certainly, Mr Cameron is doing his best to rig the result back home. Last week, confronted with Cabinet ministers threatening to quit his government unless they were allowed to campaign according to their conscience, the Prime Minister bowed to the inevitable and agreed that once the renegotiation was complete, the shackles of collective responsibility would be lifted.
The deal is meant to be done at the next EU summit on February 18/19, still nearly six weeks away. Over that period – and for as long as it might ultimately take to get an agreement – ministers are expected to refrain from declaring their hand. In other words, by issuing his non-concession concession, Cameron was buying a further spell of silence from anti-European Cabinet ministers, who almost certainly include Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers and may extend to the likes of John Whittingdale, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Theresa May and Boris Johnson.
If a week in politics is a long time, six weeks is an eternity, especially when the period of silence required from the Antis does not appear to extend to the Pros.
Within days of the Cabinet deal, pro-European ministers were taking to the airwaves to extol the wonders of Brussels. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said he could not envisage campaigning to leave the EU; Energy Secretary Amber Rudd said it would be a loss for Britain to quit; Environment Secretary Liz Truss spoke of the big benefits of EU membership.
Yesterday, on BBC Television’s Marr Show, Mr Cameron joined the In campaign, saying Brexit “would not be the right answer” for Britain and giving every indication he wants the referendum as soon as possible – which in practical terms means July this year.
Against the background of the migrant crisis, almost certain to flare up again next summer, and the ugly scenes in Cologne and other European cities, Cameron is clearly trying to bounce the UK into accepting the deal he hopes to secure in February. Gagging high level potential critics while giving supporters tacit approval to endorse membership is all part of that process.
In addition, The Sunday Telegraph reported yesterday, civil servants have been instructed to vet ministers’ Commons speeches in case sceptics try to slip in disobliging references to the wonders of the emerging superstate just across the Channel.
Brexit supporters already have enough problems, notably the lack of a unified campaign and the absence of a charismatic leader capable of galvanising support among the wider public, where apathy competes with ignorance about the true agenda of Brussels.
Are Eurosceptic ministers going to let Cameron get away with his cunning attempts to rig the result? It is about time they woke up to the threat his machinations pose to their hopes of reclaiming the nation’s independence.