David Cameron told Andrew Marr on Sunday [pdf] that he “cannot rule out campaigning to leave if he cannot secure his goals”.
Up to now, most pundits would have considered that to be rhetoric, assuming that he will come back from a meeting on Brussels proclaiming that his goals have been secured and duly campaign for Britain to stay in. Pro-European Tories have repeatedly assured people that this is the case, and he himself has hinted as much.
But is this really his intention? Can he be trusted? Will his speech tomorrow clarify this at all or will he shirk away?
After all, Cameron’s main concern has always been the unity of his own party, rather than the national interest. And for this he has made concession after concession to the eurosceptic right — not least with the very idea of a referendum, which he initially opposed.
He is faced with a party whose ageing grassroots members (and many MPs) lean in significant numbers to Brexit — but a good chunk will follow his lead in the referendum. Suppose he makes the following calculation: 25% want to stay, 45% want to leave, and 30% will follow his recommendation. If he recommends staying, he will have about 55% of his party behind him. But if he recommends leaving, he will have 75%. In terms of an easier ride for the last three years of his premiership, it could be tempting.
But would he be so callous as to sacrifice the national interest in this way?
Unfortunately, he has form on this. His decision when he first became leader to remove the Conservative MEPs from the mainstream centre-right group in the European Parliament was an early telltale sign. Marching them out of the powerful EPP and into an alliance with some very unsavoury right-wing forces left them bereft of influence, and left Britain without a presence in one of the two big political groupings in Europe. All to placate his right-wingers at the expense of the national interest.
Further telltale signs are his willing acceptance of the Eurosceptics attempts to rig the referendum in their favour. First, on the franchise: most Brits living in other EU countries will not be allowed to vote in the referendum, despite the Tory manifesto pledge to extend the franchise to expat Brits. As these people are primarily affected by the result, they are naturally aggrieved. Nor are 16-17 year olds to be allowed to vote, as they were in the Scottish independence referendum on the ground that it was a long-term decision affecting their future in an irreversible way. Is this not the case here?
Both groups, of course, are among those more likely to vote to stay.
By contrast, citizens of Commonwealth countries living in Britain, whom the eurosceptics hope will vote against remaining in Europe, will be allowed to vote, while citizens of other EU countries won’t. So a newly arrived Rwandan can vote, but a Dutch lady resident here for twenty years with British children cannot.
It is not just the franchise that Eurosceptics want to rig. They want to rig the debate.
Not content with the overwhelming euroscepticism of the tabloid, Times and Telegraph, they are bullying the BBC to take a more hostile position than it already does — ludicrously accusing it of being pro-European. And they are calling for bodies that benefit from EU funding (like universities) to be disqualified from talking about the benefits they gain from membership.
Even within their own party, Tory eurosceptics have succeeded in getting a decision that the party machinery cannot be used in the campaign (in case Cameron plumps for staying in). This would create the remarkable spectacle of a party that cannot campaign in support of its own leader and its own government!
Going along with so many eurosceptic attempts to rig the referendum does not give the impression that Cameron wants to fight hard for the ‘in’ campaign to succeed. Are the Tory pro-Europeans right to trust him?