Britain’s David Cameron began the day on Monday gently slapping down two Cabinet colleagues who said if they had a vote today, they would opt to leave the EU. It was senseless, he said, to throw in the towel before he had had a chance to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe. He ended it by caving into rebels in his Conservative party who are demanding legislation now to commit to an in/out referendum before the next election.
The 25 year history of the Conservatives and Europe – internecine warfare and successive election defeats as they obsessed about something which figures low on most Britons’ priority list – suggests no good can come of this and if Cameron wins the 2015 election it moves Britain incrementally closer to the EU exit door. The more immediate question is whether Cameron has lanced the boil. Again, history suggests that if you give ground to the eurosceptics they merely demand more. And what the PM’s pro-EU Liberal Democrat coalition partners make of this isn’t hard to imagine which means he might not even have the numbers to get the bill through parliament. One of the leading rebels seized on that point, saying the move could well fail.
The anti-EU fringe party UKIP, which could well not win a single seat at the next election but has seriously spooked the Conservatives with strong showings in recent local elections, must be laughing all the way to the bank. If it can remake the Conservative party in its own image, its job will be done. But just as likely is a split party. The irony of Cameron doing all this while in Washington to bang the drum for an EU/U.S. trade deal is hard to ignore. President Obama pointedly said the British premier should fix its relationship with the EU. If Cameron believes Britain should remain part of its main trading bloc, as he says he does, he is going to have to start explaining why and that is difficult to imagine.