David Cameron told journalists before Christmas that he had a ‘tantric’ approach to his European policy speech: that it would be all the better when it eventually came. So today he decided to continue tantalising his party and the media by popping up on the Today programme a whole week before he’s due to give the speech, and refusing to give details of what that speech will contain.
It’s an interesting strategy, as speaking so far before the speech won’t help the Conservative party remain calm. The next week was always going to be a little frenzied in the run-up to the speech. But here’s what we did learn from the Today interview:
1. The Prime Minister is in favour of Britain in Europe.
He argued that ‘Britain does have a European future’, but that this future involves reform.
‘I am in favour of Britain’s membership of the European Union. We’re a trading nation, we need access to the single market, but more than that we need a say in the rules of that market. So I believe Britain does have a European future.’
‘But frankly, there is a debate going in Britain about our relationship with Europe – a lot of people are not happy, including me, with some of the nature of that relationship, and I think there’s an opportunity to get that relationship right.’
He did clarify that he didn’t believe that Britain would ‘collapse’ if it did leave the European Union, but it’s clear that he will still campaign for ‘In’ in the event of a vote on Britain remaining in the EU or leaving.
2. He believes that now is a good time to be discussing that changed relationship…
The Prime Minister said the changes in the European Union provided Britain with ‘opportunities to make changes’. He explicitly rejected the warnings issued over the past week by Ed Miliband and allies of Angela Merkel that seeking a renegotiation was in some way dangerous by pointing out that ‘this debate is happening anyway’ and that it would be wrong to ‘stick your head in the sand and just hope the debate is going to go away’.
‘So Europe is changing and the opportunity for us to lead those changes and make changes and make changes that will make our relationship with Europe more comfortable are absolutely there so I’m confident we can do that.’
He was also keen to make clear that he was ‘confident’ that he could secure changes to Britain’s relationship with the European Union.
3. …and once that relationship has changed, voters will have their say…
Cameron used the same language he has used in the House of Commons to describe the renegotiation process: ‘a fresh settlement and then fresh consent for that settlement’. He insisted that voters would be ‘properly and fully consulted':
‘So we need both to take advantage of the change that’s happening anyway in Europe, and then also make sure the British public are properly and fully consulted.’
4. …but he was clear that there will not be an in/out referendum soon.
‘You’ll have to wait for the speech for the full details, but obviously I want to give people a proper choice. What I don’t favour – and this is important – I think if we had an In/Out referendum tomorrow or very shortly, I don’t think that would be the right answer for the simple reason that I think we’d be giving people a false choice. Because right now, I think there are a lot of people who say, ‘Well, I would like to be in Europe, but I’m not happy with every aspect of the relationship, so I want it changed’ – that is my view. So I think an In/Out referendum today is a false choice.’
Add to this Eric Pickles’ words yesterday on Pienaar’s Politics, and it looks as though the Prime Minister will be offering a referendum after a renegotiation. Pickles said:
‘It’s really important not to jump our fences before we get there and it’s really important to know exactly what the wording of the referendum is. In the interest of Britain: it will be about whether or not it’s in our interests, sorry it’s slightly a tautology, whether it’s in our interests to remain in the European Union. And I’ll tell you I won’t be voting on party lines, I’ll be voting on what’s in the interests of the country.’
But today the Prime Minister refused to say what he’d do if he failed to secure a new settlement.
So from this interview, we should expect an announcement in next week’s speech that the referendum that the Prime Minister is going to offer is new terms or out. But in the intervening few days, there will be plenty of hares running around as a result of this interview.