George Hepburn: David Cameron needs help to win his dangerous game

Journal columnist George Hepburn on the Prime Minister's efforts to win support for EU reform and how it may lead him into deep waters

Suzanne Plunkett/PA Wire European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, left, meets Prime Minister David Cameron at Chequers, Buckinghamshire, as Mr Cameron kicks off efforts to renegotiate the UK's relations with the EU
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, left, meets Prime Minister David Cameron at Chequers, Buckinghamshire, as Mr Cameron kicks off efforts to renegotiate the UK's relations with the EU

We Brits have an amazing capacity for self delusion when it comes to understanding how others see us. David Cameron should beware as he tours the capitals of Europe with a packet of Rennies in his pocket.

Perhaps it is the legacy of Empire when we claimed to rule the world; perhaps it is our traditional aloofness and stiff upper lip as, for whatever reason, our efforts, in peacetime, of getting other nations to do what we want is poor indeed. We are just not that popular abroad.

I cite as evidence of how we delude ourselves Manchester’s failed bid for the Olympics, when we were told Manchester was neck and neck with Sydney, but ended up a long way back. I remember watching the promotional videos of all the contenders. I was so awestruck with the Australian landscape that our family booked tickets the next day to visit to the ‘rellies’ down under.

We did not jump off the sofa and head off to Manchester whose video rather confusingly showed a picture of Buckingham Palace. The putative powerhouse has only now got its act together. I am on my way to see the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery.

Then, despite all our expectations, there was the ignominy of only two paltry votes for our 2018 World Cup bid and the annual embarrassment of being a null point nation in the Eurovision Song Contest. The London Olympics is the exception that proves the rule.

At least we can now claim the moral high ground about the World Cup. It is a shocking reflection of public probity that two thirds of the national delegations voted to reinstall a corrupt regime but Sepp Blatter’s excuse that you cannot constantly supervise everybody will put a smile on the face of anyone running a bank.

The script of David Cameron’s European tour this past week could have been written by Evelyn Waugh. It has been a brave if demeaning act of diplomacy.

The Prime Minister should not deluded by the pleasantries from Jean-Claude Juncker after a dinner of spring salad, pork belly and lime bavarois at Chequers. This is the man whom Cameron went flat out to stop getting the top job in Brussels. Waitrose had sold out of limes by Friday night. Anyone wishing to patch up a relationship must be serving bavarois.

He should treat Angela Merkel’s apparent willingness to negotiate with caution. She is an astute politician not wanting to make unnecessary enemies. She also knows that a Brexit would be a body blow to the European dream.

Away from the ceremonial guards of honour, all the evidence is that the continental shelf is shifting ever further adrift. France and Germany have come to an agreement for even closer political union. Le Monde says this “shows that the French and German leaders do not have much in common with David Cameron.”

No one in Brussels will want to reopen the Lisbon treaty which will need the unlikely agreement of all 28 members. The Polish Prime Minister was defending her rights over breakfast on Friday. Cameron is not concerned about the greater European good as opposed to the political turmoil at home.

He may come back, as Harold Wilson did in 1975, claiming success for very little.

He may even admit defeat and be bound to recommend leaving the EU with the prospect, that Paul Linford outlined on Saturday, of a Prime Minister who loses a referendum.

The main vote winners in a referendum would be restrictions on the free flow of labour and withholding of benefits to migrants. All else is window dressing for those on the right.

The trouble is that Euroscepticism is a state of mind spiced with prejudice and paranoia. The sceptics’ demands cannot be easily ticked off. Those with firm convictions either way are unlikely to be swayed by whatever concessions our knight in shining armour may extract.

Over the past week, David Cameron has gone out on a limb to fulfil his commitment to improve the terms of British membership. His premiership will be judged by the outcome. He may yet come to rue the day he offered a referendum to appease the sceptics in the Conservative camp and Ukip hoards at the gate.

A referendum is a dangerous game of bagatelle in which the ball may end up anywhere. According to YouGov, support for staying in Europe has a ten point lead and growing but the outcome can be thrown by any number of unforeseen events like another Euro crisis or a refugee scare or by some clever electioneering from Nigel Farage or Nicola Sturgeon. The SNP’s demand for separate country referendums is yet another headache for the Prime Minister.

If he pulls it off , the man will be a hero but David Cameron will need all the help he can get. He should call up Prince William, Seb Coe, David Beckham, Sandie Shaw and all the other cheerleaders to press the British case. Wish him well. Unlike the Eurovision Song Contest, this is not a laughing matter.

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