Cameron could win the vote and still lose his job
Selling the deal to the country was always going to be the easy bit. The tough ask for David Cameron is selling it to his party. The outcome of this weekâ€™s summit is, in that sense, one step forwards and two steps back. Simply getting the issue formally into the EUâ€™s ongoing agenda was an achievement but one that is heavily diluted by the acceptance that thereâ€™ll be no treaty change.
For the EU, Britainâ€™s demands for reform are no doubt an unwelcome distraction when it has more than enough other challenges to be going on with: the Greek Debt drama, the Med migrants and an aggressively resurgent Russia all demand immediate attention. But many of the issues are interlinked and consequently, so will the solutions be. Cameronâ€™s reforms could easily fit into those same processes.
The danger for the PM is that heâ€™s potentially caught between two extremes. On the one hand, no matter what the result, there are many both in the general public and in the Conservative Party who would like him to â€˜do a Thatcherâ€™, and handbag his opposite numbers into giving Britain its powers back, in the manner that she did over the rebate. On the other, Cameron simply canâ€™t afford for the process to become seen as Britain vs the EU, because thatâ€™s a battle the EU canâ€™t afford to lose â€“ which means it wonâ€™t, given that the other members have a veto over it.
Thatâ€™s almost certainly why when he made his original speech outlining his aims, Cameron defined his goals not as â€˜winning backâ€™ power for Britain as such but as a more ambitious but also more equal project to make the EU more relevant, more efficient, more accountable and (implicitly â€“ he didnâ€™t say it), more popular. Because the reality is that itâ€™s not Britainâ€™s negotiations that threaten the EUâ€™s existance; itâ€™s the risk of collapse from within, from a lack of legitimacy, of purpose and of prosperity.
You might think that it would therefore be in all sideâ€™s interests to do a deal that not only addresses the challenges of today but is grounded in the reality of the 21st century rather than the mid-20th: â€œever closer unionâ€ and all that. However, institutions under most pressure are often least likely to question their purpose because itâ€™s that purpose which defines identity, irrespective of whether itâ€™s effective, appropriate or demanded.
However, unless Cameron can get something, either on an EU-wide level or a special deal for the UK, then how does he sell it to his party? On Europe, the Conservatives are far less split than media commentators stuck in the 1990s might have you believe. The number of irreconcilable EU-phobes in his ranks in Westminster is relatively small â€“ around half a dozen members of Better Off Out and a few others sympathetic to that end. There are even fewer old-fashioned pro-Europeans: heâ€™s called Ken Clarke. In between are what Iâ€™ll label Pragmatists and Sceptics. Pragmatists believe that itâ€™s worth being a member on current terms but that it could and should be much better and delivering that improvement should be the prime policy objective. Sceptics believe that current terms arenâ€™t worth it but that the general principle of the Common Market was sound and that in the unlikely event of Britain getting something like that sort of membership back then theyâ€™d be In rather than Out.
Cameronâ€™s problem is that short of a major shift in intention among his EU colleagues, thereâ€™ll be nothing of that nature on offer; neither a reform in the nature of the EU itself, nor in Britainâ€™s membership terms of it. If that is the result, thereâ€™s a good chance that well over 50% of Conservative voters â€“ led by (ex-?)cabinet ministers â€“ will back Out. (On the other hand, if Cameron is successful then expect well over two-thirds to back him).
The PM could still win a referendum against that scale of voter and MP defection, relying on supporters of Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP, but his position would be like Blairâ€™s after Iraq. Put another way, the chances of him standing down in 2017 increased markedly this week.
p.s. Also on matters European, the latest last-ditch talks between Eurozone Finance Ministers take place today; an almost entirely fruitless exercise. In these kind of multilateral negotiations, success is determined by whether the most intransigent parties are prepared to sign up. In this case, thatâ€™s the IMF on one side and Tsiprasâ€™ Syriza Party on the other. Without both, itâ€™s default. Rather like the descent into WWI, the question is not whether either side wants to precipitate a default but whether theyâ€™re more scared of the consequences of giving in to the other sideâ€™s demands than of standing up to them.