This was no tantric anti-climax. This was a seismic moment in British politics. David Cameron breezed into a London press conference this morning and proceeded to reshape Europe.
The wooden lectern he stood at was pale and municipal. He wore a dark suit and a nice purple tie, and his affable pink chops glowed with moderation and good sense. He looked like a council negotiator arriving to settle a hedge dispute between warring neighbours.
The Euro-crisis will lead to the restructuring of Europe, he said. He called for a new design that would incorporate more openness, flexibility and competitiveness. And the single market, not the single currency, should lie at its heart. He deliberately evoked the religious wars that scarred the continent for centuries by referring to ‘those who denounce change as heresy’.
Britain will be offered a say in the rejigged plans. He looked sternly down the barrel of the camera. ‘This will be an in-out referendum,’ he declared, just in case there was any misunderstanding
He then hit us with shock statistic that underlines our predicament. Europe has seven per cent of the world’s population but accounts for 50 per cent of its social spending. But, in the next two decades, the EU’s share of world trade will fall by one third. It’s clear: the EU is sinking and we’re heading for the sick-bay and not the life boats.
He was a little light on the benefits of our membership. There’s the free movement of goods and services, there’s the extra swagger we enjoy on the international stage, and there’s our God-given right to slope off to Andalusia when we retire and blow our winter fuel allowance on vino tinto.
He socked it gently to Hezza and Branson and all those who wanted us to place our meek little wrists inside the Euro handcuffs. ‘Few expressions of contrition’ had been given, he noted wryly. And he threw a disguised jab at Ed Miliband for failing to commit to a referendum. If we soldier on as we are we’ll only hasten our exit, he said.
His big claim was that rebuilding Europe would be excellent for the continent’s trading prospects and for the EU’s democratic accountability. Radiating optimism, he called for ‘cool heads’ to govern the debates that will follow. (Yeah. Some chance.) And he repeated his commitment to Britain’s membership several times. But: if he fails to secure a deal that he can recommend to Britain will he vote Out?
This was the crunchiest of the questions he faced from journalists at the end. He shimmied past it once or twice but the Beeb’s Nick Robinson told him bluntly he’d fudged the issue because he was scared to tell the truth.
‘I don’t go into a negotiation hoping and expecting to fail,’ replied Cameron.
He’d fudged it again. So he may wind up shoving two fingers in Europe’s face after all. This won’t have gone unnoticed. Many on the right will be thrilled. Expect a ‘bugger-off bounce’ in Tory poll ratings.