Brian Monteith: Canny Cameron calls EU’s bluff

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Yesterday’s speech by David Cameron on Britain’s membership of the European Union was a momentous political event. It may yet come to nothing, but if it does lead to a Conservative victory in the 2015 general election it will undoubtedly bring a referendum on being in or out of a new EU.

As usual, Cameron’s critics are queuing up to have a go at him but they’re so eager to give him a kicking that their own agendas are showing and the stench of their hypocrisy is nauseating.

Anyone who reads my columns regularly enough will know that I am often highly critical of the Prime Minister and his Chancellor. On this occasion, though, I think he has said some home truths that the British public should take care to consider carefully.

I urge everyone not to rely on the news clips or the press reports, but to go and look up his speech, watch it on YouTube or ask your librarian to look it up for you. I didn’t agree with all of it but it was a well-crafted oration off some 40 minutes that looked at the historical context and laid out what he thought should be done.

I say “he” intentionally, because this was Cameron’s speech, it was not a coalition speech and that in itself tells its own story.

Let’s look at some of the criticisms of which the chief one is that Cameron has created uncertainty for business for the next four years (you will know when commentators are biased because they will stretch the period before a referendum to five years, but it would be held no later than October 2017).

This is utter tripe. There is already great uncertainty about what direction the EU is heading and anyone involved or who watches the European Union institutions knows this. Businesses know this too, and if they don’t I’d sell their shares for they must be run by incompetents.

You only need to read the speeches of the EU leaders to find talk of the need for new treaty revisions, greater convergence in Europe and that those that don’t want it can be left behind quite gladly.

What Cameron has done is called their bluff. To paraphrase him he has said, “right, let’s decide what the EU will be like and if you lot in the eurozone wish to get closer in bed together that’s fine, but the rest of us don’t, and we need to know what the new rules of the club will be.”

He is actually trying to bring an end to the uncertainty not prolong it. Of course, we could have a referendum before the 2015 general election and that would make the period of uncertainty shorter – but that would need the agreement of the Liberal Democrats and Nick Clegg is running scared of the public on this issue. So when you hear him talk about the “uncertainty for British business” just remember that he has the power to make it happen sooner but refuses to do so.

The other accusation is that Cameron made this speech to stop his party losing votes to UKIP. While I’m sure he hopes his referendum pledge will have that effect it is purely circumstantial. Indeed, it is partly because Cameron has not made this speech before now that UKIP has grown.

The real truth is that Cameron was talking about making this speech last summer, it was expected at the Tory party conference in October but was put off, it was then expected in early December but was put off again. If you doubt my word I can show you the articles I wrote on a number of occasions last year saying the speech was imminent – at a times when UKIP was far, far lower in the polls.

The reason Cameron has made the speech is to establish what terms Britain will be asked to accept in the coming reforms, to see what he can protect and what responsibilities can be passed back to Britain. If he were not to do it now it would become far harder when he had never signalled any objections to the plans that are being drawn up in Brussels as I type.

Of course, we may never get this referendum. For it to happen there will have to be a Tory victory, repeat: not a coalition victory but a Tory victory in 2015. That means the odds must for the moment be 3-1 against a referendum.

Let me finish by challenging a stupid metaphor used by the French foreign minister – who accused Britain of joining a football club and then wanting to play rugby.

How patronising and how ridiculous. A more accurate description is that many countries, some fat some thin but all different, joined a gym. Some were good at the rowing, some were good at the treadmill some at the weights – until a clique in the gym said everybody must wear the same trainers, use the same deoderant and get into the sauna together – and Britain must pay our membership fees.

Would you stay in that gym? I’d tear up my card and join another.