Thursday 13th December 2012 | 20:00
That Europe speech is looming ever closer for David Cameron, writes Paul Waugh
WORDS: PAUL WAUGH
2012 is nearly over, but for David Cameron there’s barely time to put his feet up with the latest boxset of Killing III. As the rest of us look forward to a Christmas and New Year break, the Prime Minister looks busier than an overworked elf as he deals with a sackful of big policy issues.
Backbench trouble over gay marriage, the thorny issue of a ‘draft’ Leveson bill, the Afghanistan pull-out are all going to be preoccupations. Yet the two biggest issues in the No.10 in-tray are the updated Coalition Agreement and, you guessed it, Europe.
Many Eurosceptics noted that this week was exactly 21 years since the Maastricht Treaty was signed, albeit with that crucial John Major opt-out for the UK. And the PM is still working hard on just how to formulate a policy that similarly squares the circle between British Euroscepticism and continued membership of the Brussels club.
The PM’s best gag at our Press Gallery lunch this week was his ‘tantric sex’ line. Referring to his long-awaited EU speech, he said he was taking the ‘tantric approach... it will be even better when it does eventually come”.
What is known in Downing Street simply as ‘The Speech’ is now to be made in the New Year, Government insiders have finally confirmed. The PM himself had got it into his head that he could deliver this grand opus next Monday or Tuesday, particularly given that he has done a lot of the heavy lifting in drafting its core message. But Prime Ministers sometimes forget that they have diaries and a stack of meetings and duties to get out of the way in the run up to Christmas.
Most important of all, the PM needed George Osborne and William Hague at his side to properly go through the final details of the speech. And they have all of them been out of the country this week, Osborne at the vexed Ecofin, the PM at the EU summit and Hague at the Friends of Syria meeting.
The other big item occupying the PM – the ‘mid-term review’ – will also affect the timing of his Europe speech. This is seen by both the Libs and Tory ministers as a key chance to flesh out new policies and inject a sense of fresh momentum into Government. Not surprisingly, it is due to be unveiled in early January and the last thing that Cameron and Clegg want is a Europe row overshadowing their shiny new policy agreements. As a result, many in Whitehall now expect The Speech to come in late January or even early February.
Yet ultimately it is not the timing of this speech that matters as much as its content. And the big problem for Cameron is not his attempt at renegotiation, but how he seeks ‘fresh consent’ of the British people. Boris Johnson suggested this week he knew what the PM’s plan was, declaring on Marr that voters would be offered “broadly an in-out referendum on the new terms’. That’s far from certain. That word ‘broadly’ is the sticking point. No.10 were not pleased at Boris’s freelancing and no wonder. If the PM simply offers the public a chance to accept or reject his new terms, with an ‘implied’ assumption that a No vote would mean leaving Europe, that won’t be good enough for many Eurosceps. They want a clear ‘out’ option, not a fudge.
This week the PM refused to give much away, beyond stating that he wanted to remain in the EU to turn it into a proper free trading bloc and that his aim was to make the country “more comfortable” in the EU not to “lever Britain out”. He knows colleagues want to see The Speech as historic, a road map to reassure his party while working with allies like Angela Merkel to help strengthen the EU as a free trade bloc.
It’s a tough call. Not least because in any ‘in-out’ referendum, the logic may be that a Conservative Prime Minister ends up recommending the ‘in’ vote, while his party supporters reach for the exit door. But as Eric Pickles tells us in this week’s issue, sometimes the national interest has to come before party interest. “That’s what Churchill said, didn’t he? Country first, always.” Let’s see if it gets that far.