Can Cameron really offer the best of both worlds in the EU referendum?

He's betting on it. He might yet have to win with a far less appealing offering

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

By this time next year Britain will, if the government has its way, have voted on whether or not this country should stay in the European Union. This referendum has the potential to reshape British politics. It will not only determine whether we remain in the EU, but it will also play a huge role in determining who will be the next Prime Minister. It will present David Cameron with the most difficult party-management challenge that he has faced in more than a decade as Tory leader.

Downing Street has given up trying to secure a deal at the European Council later this month. The new target is early in the new year. The major stumbling block to any agreement is the British proposal for a four-year bar on EU migrants receiving either in- or out-of-work benefits here.

Cameron has been told that this is vital if he is to persuade Britain that he is doing something about immigration, one of voters’ biggest concerns about EU membership. However, Eastern European govern-ments — particularly the newly elected Polish one — are determined not to concede this point. With Angela Merkel having burned her political capital with these countries over refugee resettlement, it is hard to see who can — or will — persuade them to accept the British position.

Both campaigns believe that the end of the renegotiation will benefit them. The ‘Out’ side claims that focus groups find voters incredulous when told that Cameron won’t use the renegotiation to challenge the principle of free movement. They believe they will be able to persuade the public that the new deal is pretty much the same as the current one — and it is true that the demands Cameron set out in his recent letter to European Council president Donald Tusk were underwhelming. Even cabinet ministers who will campaign with Cameron admit that the Prime Minister’s demands are too modest. The ‘Out’ campaign will duly say that ‘Cameron promised real change, but he’s only delivered small change.’

At the moment, their rivals are not making the weather. Many of the politicians prepared to support ‘In’ before the renegotiation also backed joining the euro, which rather reduces their standing in this debate. The ‘In’ campaign is acutely aware of what a problem this is. It’s interesting that Peter Mandelson and Danny Alexander, two leading lights of the campaign to persuade Britain to join the single currency, stayed away from the ‘In’ launch.

In an attempt to address this weakness, the campaign has recruited Stuart Rose, the former M&S boss and one of No. 10’s favourite businessmen, as its frontman. But, as with so many businessmen, Rose isn’t very good at politics. A few days after the launch, he declared that ‘Nothing is going to happen if we come out of Europe in the first five years, probably. There will be absolutely no change.’

This was a serious blunder — and Rose has not done a major interview since — because one of the campaign’s strongest arguments is that the ‘Out’ camp can’t explain what Britain’s relationship with the EU would be if we voted to leave. Indeed, given the divide in the eurosceptic movement about this question, the ‘Out’ side has decided that it simply won’t try to answer it. The danger is that this becomes an Achilles heel, akin to Alex Salmond’s inability to explain how he would persuade the rest of the UK to share the pound with an independent Scotland.

Those close to Cameron believe that another great weakness of the ‘Out’ campaign is its leadership. As one puts it: ‘The Prime Minister, the governor of the Bank of England, the president of the US and the president of China all saying ‘Stay in’ is going to persuade a lot of people’. By contrast, the ‘Out’ side’s most senior figure is Nigel Lawson, who left the Commons 23 years ago. ‘Out’ do have a party leader on their side — Nigel Farage — but even the alternative ‘Out’ campaign run by Ukip donor Aaron Banks accepts that Farage is too divisive a figure to be the face of the campaign.

This is why what Boris Johnson and cabinet ministers do, come the referendum, matters so much. The boost for ‘In’ from Cameron’s support is greatly reduced if he can’t bring his top team with him.

If a sizeable number of Tory big beasts lent their support to ‘Out’, they would give that campaign more credibility. This is what makes the rapprochement between George Osborne, who is almost certain to back staying In, and Theresa May, the one holder of a great office of state who might back ‘Out’, so significant. Straight after the spending review, which protected police budgets, one of those who knows Osborne best declared, that it marked a ‘new partnership’ between them. A close Osborne ally now says: ‘Maybe Theresa will be George’s Chancellor.’

The other crucial question is when the referendum will be. The government would prefer sooner rather than later — ideally in June before ‘migrant season’ gets into full flow. But there are significant logistical obstacles to this. First, the Electoral Commis-sion would be deeply unhappy with the referendum cutting across the Scottish, Welsh and London elections that take place in May — though these objections would have no legal force. The second is the question of 16- and 17-year-olds voting in the referendum. The House of Lords has voted for this, but the government is committed to overturning it in the Commons. But if the Lords won’t back down, then the government will have to delay the referendum for another year. The ‘In’ campaign, though, is keen to avoid the referendum going into 2017 for fear that the longer it goes on, the more likely it is that events will favour ‘Out’.

Cameron and the ‘In’ campaign’s argument will be that Britain can have the best of both worlds — in the European Union and the single market but not in the single currency or Schengen. But the limited nature of the renegotiation, with no challenge to the principle of freedom of movement, means that Britain will never find out how good the best of both worlds could have been. Instead, voters will have to choose between two deeply imperfect options.

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  • Frank

    Only Cameron would waste time pretend re-negotiating with a moribund empire that is falling apart before his eyes!
    Why does Cameron not try and articulate a new vision of a free trade EU without all the claptrap about ever-closer-union, open borders and curved bananas.
    Finally, the choice of the commercial “leaders” for the BSE group tells one all one needs to know about the quality of the judgement within No10 Downing Street!

  • Émile

    UK needs to talk with fellow rich EU countries, which have the same interests as UK as net receivers of migrant workers, to back its intended restrictions on migrant workers’ rights inside the EU. Poor EU countries, as net exporters of workers, will never accept the curbs.

    • Harryagain

      They ALL have to agree to what he wants.
      It will never happen.
      Too many commie begging bowls out there.

      • Émile

        They will ALL agree if everybody receives something in exchange. If the rich countries want a modification of the present regulation concerning the free movement of workers the poor countries will ask for some privileges in exchange (for instance, restrictions on buying land for foreigners, more scope for protectionist measures, etc.)
        Similarly, Britain cannot get a special treatment without renouncing to something valuable to other countries.

        • berosos_bubos

          Well we get criminal gangs and HIV health tourists and give up our safety and security and public services and 20 billion a year and the right to make our own laws.

  • Harryagain

    Camoron is a gutless nobody.
    He will come back with precisely nothing.
    Too many basket case economies sucking at the t it.
    They think they have found the famous socialist free money tree.
    They will be reluctant to let go.
    As an ex PR man Camoron thinks he can come back home with nothing and than BS us all into thinking it’s a great victory.
    Well we all know what a liar he is, we won’t be fooled for an instant.

    • TommyCastro

      I really think you should stop sitting on the fence on this issue…

  • misomiso

    It’s the worst of Both Worlds!

    We are in the the EU but will NEVER have the influence of a Eurozone country, but can’t sign Trade deals with other countries.

    Cameron and Osborne are looking for a win on points – and lets not underestimate just how good politicians they are; sweet talking Theresa, putting off all meaning full reforms (BBC, Tax credtist, etc) till after the vote as they might upset people and provide a stick to beat the government.

    But Cameron is correct as the leadership question is a big one for the Outers, and the alternative is a problem as there is a split between Committed Outers and those who want to stay in some kind of political Union (Boris).

  • TommyCastro

    It really is obvious, we simply have to leave.

  • rationality

    This isnt even about staying in or not. This is about dismantling the dictatorship completely as a moral duty for the benefit for the European people and future generations. The corporate dictatorship constantly uses the Hegelian Dialect of Problem, Reaction, Solution as it engineers crises and then uses the problem as a means to take away freedoms and sovereignty.

    Latest is that it will be using Frontex, the border guard agency, to monitor borders and individual countries will not have the power to veto this. This is the first step to a EU army. As I say future generations will not thank us if we do not act in their interests. Going on about in work benefits is more deception from the government and a distraction from significant problems.


  • Mary Ann

    Who wins the next election is trivial compared to the EU referendum, if we choose to leave the EU it will permanent, if we vote for the wrong party at the next election we can always change it 5 years later.

    • karen

      Do you think we will even have parties in the future? What opposition do we really have now anyway? Why will parites be necessary once the EU has generally increased it’s powersover the next 20-30 years, and consigned democracy into the bin with the salami technique of changing laws and regulations by very thin slices.

  • Alan

    I’d rather Britons stopped whining and start working hard. Complaining about poorer countries is unfounded. First of all, share a bit of your wealth, the wealth that you partly accumulated by occupying half of the world. Second of all, is there really more (%) of EU migrants receiving benefits than British citizens? – don’t think so. The problem is the EU migrants work harder and are better at what they do, you feel threatened. But if you have the balls, compete in the free market like everyone else does. It is very hypocritical that you want protectionist advantage to your labour market while insisting that everyone else opens their markets when it suits you. Britan…get real! – you are not the centre of the universe anymore 🙂

    • berosos_bubos

      Rent out my house and live in the garden shed. I’m sure my wife would appreciate that.

      • Alan

        Lol, If I ever immigrate to Britain I might buy your house, take your wife and rent the shed to you…beware 😉

  • David

    Does anyone really believe this ‘renegotiation’ is anything more than a stage-managed lover’s tiff, for the benefit of a gullible British public and a complicit media? I mean, really?

    It’s amazing to watch the archive TV programmes and footage on YouTube from the time of the first and only (so far) EU referendum in 1975. It’s fascinating to see the likes of Heath and Wilson lie about “the Common Market” barefacedly and to see what the prescient Tony Benn and Enoch Powell had to say. Seeing this only makes Cameron’s actions look all the more cynical.

    In the words of The Who, “we don’t get fooled again – no, no!”

  • berosos_bubos

    50% of immigration is from outside the EU and there is nothing stopping DC doing anything about that , he just doesn’t want to. All his guff about stopping benefits going to people from the EU is just guff when he cant even deport criminals or do checks on people before they arrive.

  • Freddythreepwood

    ‘one of the campaign’s strongest arguments is that the ‘Out’ camp can’t explain what Britain’s relationship with the EU would be if we voted to leave’

    Missing the point entirely. Britain’s political relationship will be what Britain wants it to be. As for trade, we can start with our historic and continuing trade deficit. So far, the ‘In’ camp can’t explain why they think Germany, France, Holland etc will decide to cut off their noses to spite their faces and stop selling to us.
    Politicians lie about our relationship with the EU. They have lied from the very start and will continue to do so. We know that, and that will be their problem come the referendum. As for Business, their only interest is cheap labour, which means more immigration – so who will be listening to them? We are perfectly aware that if we leave, we can decide for ourselves who and how many to let in.

    • sebastian2


  • lakelander

    So Theresa might be George’s chancellor if she keeps her nose clean.

    How depressing that the vital issue of whether or not Britain remains in or leaves the EU swings on the self-interested careerism in our political class.

    This is why they engender such disgust.

  • sebastian2

    Negotiations are tortuous and inconclusive – and probably costly. Apart from anything else – and there’s lots of that including the alarming proposal for an EU Border Force independent of the nations whose borders will be policed – I do not trust Cameron. Neither his heart nor his career ambitions are in this. He’s a europhile – always has been – now driven by public opinion to wrest from the EU things which he doesn’t want us to have and which the EU probably will not give. His twisting and turning over the Referendum to begin with was very telling. Now he’s dropping core demands. Making concessions. This is not negotiation. This is slow surrender dressed up as firm dealing.

    I believe he’s a charlatan in this who is still, even with public opinion as is, angling for a plump EU position as the pinnacle of his self-centred political career. Once a conceited elitist, always a conceited elitist; and thirsting for more.

  • greggf

    The EU was never elected.

    What the the people elected in 1975 was a Common Market. Which could be viable.

    The Sales’ men’s in Brussels, John Mayor’s tricks and since will work against a new illegitimacy (by Cameron) by referendum.

  • Conway

    … because one of the campaign’s strongest arguments is that the ‘Out’ camp
    can’t explain what Britain’s relationship with the EU would be if we
    voted to leave.
    ” But the ‘In’ campaign won’t admit that if we vote to stay in it will be full steam ahead for the USE and ditching the pound for the euro. That point will be made repeatedly in the run up to the referendum. There is no such thing as the status quo because the EU is always moving towards “ever closer union” and at last we have woken up to that fact.

  • Cobbett

    If after what that crazy old bat Merkel has done people still vote to remain in the EU then what hope is there?

  • MrBishi

    I hadn’t realised that Cameron was arguing to stay in the EU.

  • morbidfascination

    The opening sentence is incorrect and should read thus: “By this time next year Britain will, if the government has its way, have voted to stay in the European Union.”

  • frank davidson

    The timing of the vote is critical particularly if it coincides with release of immigration data. If Cameron rigs the vote in whatever way it will only come back to bite. Indeed this vote will only be a one time vote if we leave. The people will not stand for uncontrolled immigration forever together with excessive payments to the EU and foreign aid, not to mention housing, schools the NHS all being in disarray. Looks like taxes will need to rise to pay for all this as the economy stalls.

  • Halo

    Apart from the (relatively) better economy, another reasons we get more incoming folk from the EU (and other places) is the effectively universal language we speak. However it seems now that people are worried that we will be speaking another language in the future given the media coverage of the multiple “millions” coming our way imminently. Is this really the case or is it media mania and other people’s agendas?