Could Cameron do a Hugh Grant on Saturday?


The differences between the Prime Minister’s EU aspirations outlined in his 2013 Bloomberg Speech and the thin gruel seemingly contained in his draft EU renegotiation agreement are so stark that I find it perplexing. In no way, could the draft agreement constitute the promised ‘fundamental reform of the EU’. It throws some minor titbits in the UK’s direction but the EU itself is largely unchanged and will lumber on regardless especially as there is no legal cement provided by treaty change. However, Cameron is no fool, and all this makes me wonder what he is really up to? I can’t accept that what seems to be on offer is the end of the story and I find myself wondering if he could really be a Leaver who might be prepared to throw caution to the wind and declare an honest hand in the manner of the British Prime Minister played by Hugh Grant in the film, Love Actually

Then I woke up!

And yet. Surely, the Prime Minister can’t think that the British voter will fail to notice a dud deal when they see one. David Cameron is far too clever for that, and I therefore fully expect that he is playing a subtler game and that his real strategy has yet to be revealed. Here are some thoughts on how things could unfurl

In the first scenario, the conventional narrative is correct and what you see is what you get. In this case, the Bloomberg Speech contained promises that, in the context of a 2013 Coalition government, the PM never thought he would have to keep. The majority he gained in the 2015 election was unexpected and so he now finds himself having to wriggle out of his previous declarations. In this case, Cameron has already decided that the UK will stay in the EU and he has calculated that he can scare the voters into supporting him. He is following the Wilson model and he will brazen it out by trumpeting what a great deal he has secured. His assertions will be supported by a ‘3-shirt, acrimonious’ meeting with fellow EU leaders from which he will emerge bleary-eyed and victorious after a hard-fought battle with the French playing the traditional role as the defeated European foe. If he feels his side of the campaign needed an extra boost he might even walk out of this weekend’s talks before returning to ’emergency’ talks a month later to secure the ‘important’ terms that he demands. The press might have you believe that this would constitute a ‘failure’ on the PM’s part but in the eyes of his core vote and the undecided middle ground it would probably be seen as a show of strength and reinforce the idea that the deal is actually something substantive and worth fighting for. This is the scenario being played out in the press but it is the least likely to my mind. The deal is so transparently a paper tiger that there is a real likelihood that the electorate will reject it and vote to leave, leaving the PM on the losing side and the wrong side of history. It’s why I believe it’s not that simple.

Before moving on, we should briefly address the key question of which target audience is the PM addressing with his recent remarks? It can’t be his party who increasingly see his round-robin of european capitals as a begging mission and a bit of a national humiliation. I don’t think either that it is the europhiles who are largely convinced ‘Remainians’ anyway. In my view, he is addressing European politicians and the public in other countries, and I need to explain this.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is absolutely right that a British Prime Minister should seek to minimise the diplomatic damage that will undoubtedly result from the referendum process as to do otherwise would be against our national interest. If we end up leaving, we need to minimise the strategic fallout which could be considerable. On the other hand, even a vote to remain in the EU could undermine long-term diplomatic relationships if it was secured clumsily. With this in mind, I believe that the PM had no choice but to enter into EU negotiations seeking realistic (weak) changes and to portray the UK as ‘willing’ Europeans and ‘reluctant’ potential leavers. If he had entered into talks demanding huge and unrealistic changes that could never be accepted in other capitals he would have been perceived as a pre-determined leaver and the EU would have just given up on us amid much diplomatic rancour and long term damage.

If this explains the PM’s behaviour and remarks in the last few months, it also raises questions about what he is really seeking. If it is indeed a diplomatic charade, then it raises the possibility that the Prime Minister actually does want us to leave the EU or is at least agnostic. I noted that the PM has not unequivocally signed up to Tusk’s draft letter and there have been remarks from No10 and Ministers about it ‘being the basis of a negotiation’ Does this mean that the UK might attempt to introduce new and as yet unseen material into the talks? Certainly the French are alive to the threat as even President Hollande remarked last week that there should be nothing else in the talks beyond what is stated in the draft agreement. If the UK wanted to ensure that the talks were unsuccessful, then I can think of no better way of engineering it than by making a late bid for new clauses. The effect of failed talks would be electrifying. In the extreme case, the PM could come home on Saturday declare himself a reluctant leaver and campaign to leave. This would be the Hugh Grant option. Does this explain why some of the more senior ministers seem to have gone silent? In reality, probably not although its a nice thought. I believe that it is more likely that he plans to use the failed talks as a lever to gain something altogether different such as the Associate Membership model. Under this plan, the UK would sit in outer ring of slowcoaches whilst an inner core forged ahead with closer political integration. To my mind, Associate Membership would constitute a second class status which I would vigorously oppose but I mention now to illustrate that the Prime Minister’s position is still opaque.

There are probably a number of other scenarios that you could think of and any one could be true. The important point though is that nothing is ever as it seems with politics and international affairs. David Cameron is a wily animal and in my opinion we have not yet see the half of it. The clues will be in his remarks and by careful consideration of which audience he is talking to. The BBC’s Andrew Marr show may well provide the clue. The weekend ahead promises to be extremely interesting.