David Cameron’s entrance to the Commons at noon was cheered so ecstatically by his backbenchers that broadcasters decided to run the footage again, straight after PMQs.
The Tory cheers redoubled when Ed Miliband rose to quiz the PM. Miliband, however, had discovered a flaw in the prime minister’s position. He probed him on his voting intentions in the European referendum. This should have been clear and simple. It was anything but.
‘Can he guarantee that he will vote Yes?’ said Miliband
‘Yes,’ said Cameron. And he immediately added, ‘I want Britain to be part of a reformed EU.’ So the answer slithered out into a single gloopy sound-bite. ‘Yes-I-want-Britain-to-be-part-of-a-reformed-EU.’
Very clever. And pretty devious. He appeared to be guaranteeing a Yes vote but he was really just expressing his positive hopes for the negotiations. Miliband spotted this. ‘That wasn’t quite a complete answer. Let’s press him further. If he doesn’t achieve his negotiating strategy will he recommend that Britain leaves the EU?’
So Cameron threw in a joke. ‘I’m glad he’s accepting the premise that the Conservatives will win the next election.’
Miliband wouldn’t be fobbed off. He raised a peg-like forefinger and waved it indignantly at his opponent.
‘Can he guarantee that he will vote Yes?’
‘Yes,’ said Cameron, ‘I support Britain’s membership of a reformed EU.’ Same thing again. The slippery yes word prefixing a subtle re-design of the question. Miliband had a final go. He asked if there was a deal-breaking issue that would shift Cameron into the quit-Europe camp.
Cameron beamed back triumphantly. ‘But, but,’ he trilled, ‘I don’t want Britain to leave the European Union.’
Oh the sneaky joy of it. Answering Yes to one question while claiming to answer Yes to a different one.
For the moment, this prevarication will pass muster. Labour tried to spoil Cameron’s day by needling him over welfare cuts and claiming that his economic blunders are clobbering the poor. Jack Dromey rose to his feet, greeted by a resounding silence from his own side, and declared that Cameron’s speech had just jeopardised the entire British car industry. Nice try but even a gifted mood-dampener like Dromey was unable to quell Tory jubilation. Backbenchers were queuing up to heap praise on their European superhero. Sir Gerald Howarth, wearing a pompous expression to go with his new knighthood, hailed the PM for making ‘a landmark speech that demonstrates serious leadership of the country. ‘
Up climbed Graham Stuart – no knighthood yet, but surely only a matter of time – who piped out a single dulcet word. ‘Congratulations!’ He then saluted his leader, his colleagues and, by implication, himself, for finally offering the country a referendum on Europe, (forgetting to mention that it’s taken 38 years to get here, and the vote isn’t due for another half a decade.) ‘This side trusts the people,’ he shouted, ‘and that side wants to deny them a say!’
Sycophant of the Day Award goes to Crispin Blunt who dug out a half-forgotten sound-bite from Pitt the Younger. ‘Europe is not to be saved by a single man,’ said Pitt. Blunt rather wildly predicted that Cameron would overturn this axiom by personally rescuing the whole continent.
‘His example today and his exertions over the next four years offer the best chance of saving Europe.’
Cameron responded modestly. ‘The EU isn’t working,’ he said.
The Speaker called a halt at this point. Good thing too. The next Tory MP would probably have called for a statue of Cameron to be raised in Parliament Square or for a new palace to be built for him near his constituency, at public expense. Somewhere like Blenheim.