One month into his new administration, David Cameron’s referendum on EU membership seems increasingly pointless. The idea – now amazingly two and a half years old – always had the air of a grubby, smoke and mirrors compromise, something dreamed up on the back of an envelope to keep his revolting backbenchers at bay.
But now, as details of his strategy begin to emerge, every element of his EU-related utterances add up to a blatant stitch-up of the eurosceptic camp. It’s fool’s gold – tons of it.
First, he’s rigged the spending rules so that the full government apparatus will be used as a propaganda machine to support continued membership.
Second, unlike in 1975, he’s making it as difficult as possible for government ministers to vote according to their consciences on the issue. Of course, there just might be men and women of principle among them, but whatever Cameron actually meant in his briefing at the G7, don’t hold your breath that many ministers will be speaking openly about withdrawal any time soon.
Was it actually a ploy to shut them up? Prime Ministers, with their battalions of press advisers, don’t usually make such ‘mistakes’ at formal press briefings.
Third, it is now abundantly clear from his meetings with EU leaders that he is plotting and scheming with them to stitch up a series of shallow, meaningless reforms that will look like change but in reality will allow the Brussels juggernaut to continue its relentless progress towards political integration.
The British people have never been told the truth about the EU project and there are absolutely no signs this is going to change.
And fourth, the Conservative backbenchers who want to leave the EU seem to be mesmerised by the idea that significant reform is possible through negotiation when every pointer indicates otherwise. Those backbenchers might have thought they won a victory and sure ground towards change when a majority Conservative government was returned.
But the reality is that David Cameron is calculating that he can steamroller or circumvent them. That is why he feels confident enough to suggest that he will sack those who do not toe the party line. And if there is a backbench revolt, he also knows he will have the rock solid support of most of Labour and all of SNP – enough to ensure a comfortable majority.
As things stand – despite some grumbling – it now appears that the Conservative Eurosceptic wing has been duped into following Cameron. Are they really passionate enough about leaving the EU to stand up to him?
The BBC, of course, is loving this. Over the weekend, with just as wearying predictability as their attacks on Ukip, they wheeled out Kenneth Clarke and Lord Heseltine to pour odure on the Eurosceptic wing of the party – people they have always regarded with utter disdain. Now that the Cameron hand has been fully declared, they feel safe in doing his bidding. ‘Cry havoc and unleash the dogs of war’.
Also now depressingly clear is that the Eurosceptic camp – however it is defined – is deeply divided and as yet lacking central organisation.
As already noted, it looks from the outside that backbenchers have been paralysed into virtual passivity as they wait for Cameron’s nebulous ‘reforms’.
Nigel Farage declared boldly at the weekend that he wants to make a start. But though he has the potential support of 4m voters, this is nowhere near enough to create guaranteed momentum for the no camp. The last referendum about the EU (then the Common market, of course) was 17.3m for and 8.5m against. In order to win a ‘no’ in 2017, a massive level of support beyond the appeal of Ukip is required.
Where is that support? Perhaps somewhere, somehow, such a fleet is being assembled, but as yet the signs are patchy.
And meanwhile, on top of the now flagrant partisanship of Cameron and the government, big business is continuing to marshal its troops for a ‘yes’ vote as the utterances from the CBI have recently made very clear.
On this front, it is interesting that the most recent appointment to the BBC Board of Trustees is Sir Roger Carr –the immediate past president of the CBI. The last EU referendum, it has been often said, was an establishment stitch-up in which the BBC played a highly questionable role.
Déjà-vu – all over again?