“There could be a World War,” says David Cameron. “Or even worse, house prices might fall”, George Osborne replies This imaginary conversation, shown in speech bubbles and under the headline “Project Fear Brexit goes Nuclear”, appeared on the front of Private Eye last month. The cover worked, as good satire always does, because it contained a strong element of truth.
A high proportion of voters do believe, after all, that the government has taken “Project Fear” to absurd “nuclear” levels. Those of us who want to leave the European Union, having been dubbed “economically illiterate” by the Chancellor, have since been told by our Prime Minister that we’re “quitters” who are making Islamic extremists “happy” and “threatening peace and stability across Europe”.
What are we to make of David Cameron’s “deal” with the European Union? How does it affect the probability Britain will vote to leave the EU in the referendum now confirmed for 23 June?
The Prime Minister achieved very little, to my mind, in his negotiation with other EU member states. In fact, he severely weakened his cause. The chances of Britain leaving the EU have sharply risen, I’d say, since Downing Street last weekend revealed some rather threadbare concessions. “Brexit” is now a very real possibility – and any UK-based business that thinks otherwise is probably ill-informed.
For months, as negotiations on the UK’s relationship with the European Union have become increasingly fraught, our political classes have assumed – asserted even – that the upcoming referendum will be held in the middle of this year.
I’ve never been convinced. I’m not saying an early vote won’t happen, but I do think there’s a high probability this near-ubiquitous mid-2016 assumption will be proved wrong. And that has significant implications, of course, for investment and our broader economy.
I didn’t vote in the last UK referendum on Europe. It was in June 1975 – and I was six years old. Some three-quarters of the current electorate, in fact, have never had a say on Britain’s place in Europe. That’s one reason I welcome the upcoming referendum – which could easily be next year and must take place by the end of 2017.
Another Europe vote is needed because the last one, some 40 years ago, is now entirely obsolete. The ballot paper in June 1975 asked: “Do you think the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (The Common Market)?” Faced with that question, we opted to stay in by a margin of 2-to-1.
David Cameron last week laid out demands/objectives/aspirations – delete as appropriate – for reforming the European Union. The word choice depends on whether you view the Prime Minister’s conditions for backing the UK’s on-going EU membership as ambitious, woefully weak, or somewhere in between.
By making it clear for several years that he wants Britain to stay in whatever the outcome of his “renegotiation”, Cameron has blundered badly. His outlined reforms are, on top of that, far too timid – coming across more as an extended apology for being awkward, rather than the opening gambit of what needs to be a prolonged, hard-nosed negotiation.
Since the Conservative party conference in Manchester, much ink has been spent and airtime filled poring over the speeches of Messrs Cameron, Osborne and Johnson. Among the Westminster cognoscenti, some relatively clear conclusions have emerged.
The Prime Minister is “at the height of his powers”, we read, his speech “shifting his party to the centre-ground, like Blair but from the opposite direction”. The Chancellor is “a safe pair of hands” and “assured”, the political sketch-writers tell us, clearly “the leader-in-waiting”. As for the London Mayor, he remains “good at telling jokes” but “will have to show more than humour if he’s to launch a genuine bid for Number 10”.
“There won’t be a long discussion”. So said an anonymous French diplomat, prior to the Brussels summit dinner on Thursday night, where David Cameron apparently began to renegotiate UK’s European Union membership. The British Prime Minister will have time only to set out his proposals “in a general way”, observed a German official before the meal, adopting an almost equally withering tone.
There seems little appetite among EU governments for the UK to reconstitute our relationship with the other 27 member states and then hold an in/out referendum. That lack of appeal may even extend to Number 10 itself – given that the Conservatives’ manifesto pledge was made under pre-election duress, to try to win back Tory voters attracted to Ukip.