Poor old David Cameron has never been blessed with attractive options on the European front. But for a while it was possible to suppose that it might not ruin his career to anything like the degree it helped to scupper the ministries of John Major and Margaret Thatcher. That pretence is over, however. There’s a storm coming and Cameron will be shipwrecked on the Belgian coast and that will be that.
A few months ago I suggested that all the talk of Tory “unity” on the European question was so much hogwash. The best that could be said was that all these clever ploys and stratagems for renegotiating Britain’s membership of the EU had bought Cameron a little time. But only a little. The relief could only be temporary, however, not least because a large part of Cameron’s party want the Prime Minister’s preferred policy to fail.
Cameron thinks it is in Britain’s interest to remain a member of the EU. He does not consider the present terms of British membership intolerable. If he did he’d simply opt to leave now. Britain’s relationship with the EU may, in Cameron’s view, often be less than ideal; it is rarely, if ever, impossible.
So Cameron has put himself in the foolish position of – supposing he is still Prime Minister at the time – having to scuttle around Europe demanding better terms knowing that if he fails to “win” these terms he will, logically, find himself in a position of having to argue that terms of membership he found reasonable in 2013 have by some alchemy become utterly unacceptable in 2015 or whenever. Nothing of substance will have changed but Cameron will, presumably, have to campaign for Britain to leave the EU because Britain’s relationship with Europe was much the same as it was in 2013 when Cameron thought it was in Britain’s interest to remain a member of the EU. This is madness.
Moreover, it is quite evident that a large part of the Tory party has set Cameron up to fail. Consider this passage from James Forsyth’s latest (and characteristically excellent) column:
‘If he’s going to lead the “in” campaign,’ one senior Tory MP remarked to me, ‘I don’t think he can lead the party too.’ At least one loyalist fears that, if Cameron comes back from a Brussels renegotiation saying he’ll campaign to stay in, the chairman of the 1922 Committee will immediately receive enough letters to trigger a vote of no confidence.
In other words: Cameron has been set up to fail. 40 per cent of the Tory party – roughly speaking – wants out. That proportion can only, I suspect, increase, in the next few years. So it boils down to this: half the party believes that Cameron’s definition of “success” is actually evidence of failure. Because renegotiation is just a milestone on the road to withdrawal. It’s not meant to actually achieve anything. On the contrary, it’s a ploy that is built to fail and many of those pushing it have no interest in seeing it actually produce anything.
Again, all the talk about Tory unity “holding” to 2015 or so is balderdash. The party is already split down the middle and it is a breach that cannot be mended since the growing Better Off Out caucus cannot possibly be reconciled to any plausible alternative relationship with Europe. For them, Cameron’s success is failure and his failure is success.
The only way the Prime Minister can survive the coming storm is to make a chump of himself by leaping to the Better Off Out side. The alternative – and perhaps more plausible – road to survival requires him to lose the next election. But that will be the end of him too. And so, there we have it: one way or another we’re approaching the endgame of David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative party.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.