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EU politics: Britain would vote to stay in the EU

Richard North, 03/01/2013  


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Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times reckons that faced with a referendum offering a choice between a renegotiated settlement and leaving the EU, then the British public would opt for the status quo.

Mr Cameron, Rachman reminds us, has been promising a big speech on "Europe" for months (another one of this brilliant media commentators who can't tell the difference between the continent and the European Union). And Cameron's strategy for keeping the UK inside the EU, we are told by this great sage, is fairly clear.

This "clear" strategy, it would thus appear, is that he is "likely" to demand a renegotiation of Britain's terms of membership, involving the repatriation of some powers from Brussels. He will promise to put the result to a referendum, in which voters will be invited to accept the new deal or quit the EU.

Wearily, we learn that "the other EU members will not make a British renegotiation easy. But they will probably throw a few token concessions in Mr Cameron's direction, rather than force Britain out of the union".

In any referendum campaign, the leaders of all three leading parties – the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems – would campaign in favour of a "yes" vote. Ranged against them would be UKIP, "a party that Mr Cameron uncharitably – but not entirely inaccurately – in 2006 described as made up of fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists".

The "no" campaign would also be bolstered by some of the angrier and less attractive members of the Conservative party. Faced by this line-up, the British public would almost certainly opt for the status quo – staying inside the EU.

This process, Rachman acknowledges, "would strongly resemble the last British referendum on the EU in 1975", when Harold Wilson had also insisted on "renegotiating" Britain's terms of membership and putting the results to a referendum.

Although the British public has become less deferential over the past 40 years, the EU has been transformed in size and purpose, and a lot has changed since the 1975 referendum, the end result, Rachman believes, is likely to be the same.

And how brilliantly the man has missed the point. While he may well be accurate in his prediction for such a referendum, if it ever happens, the offer of a faux renegotiation will not get Mr Cameron successfully past the general election. And that will what he will be trying to do with his big speech on "Europe". That is its real purpose.

Here, Cameron will not only be confronting a less deferential public. There is also the internet. Opinion is less dependent on the established media and there are more and better means of disseminating the truth. Thus, a promise to renegotiate will be seen by enough people for what it is, and they will rob him of his chance of re-election.

For Mr Cameron to get past his 2015 hurdle, therefore, he is going to have to offer something much more imaginative. And there he is running out of options – and time.

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