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The John Major Defence

18/11/2014 15:56 GMT | Updated 17/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Last week John Major delivered what he believes is his most important speech of the last few years and gave the Prime Minister a chess move aimed at breaking the stalemate of his increasingly noisy, obscure and friendless Europe policy.

To win an election in May, Cameron is told to talk tough on immigration and Europe, thus alienating the very allies he needs to secure the reforms he needs to win a referendum in 2017. The Major defence is a move which keeps his party united now, his Bloomberg reforms on track and his allies reassured for the future. If deployed well, it could give Cameron the story he needs to tell on UKIP and Europe, namely that immigration will be controlled and Europe will support us. It requires leadership and throws down a challenge to the PM. Said Major: "The prize is very great indeed. Politicians may fail. But Statesmen should not. Let us all hope that Statesmanship prevails."

It will be a tough sell especially when, for the allies, the un-statesmanlike noise is about to get louder. Rochester will explode the Europe bomb again this week. The cause, immigration, will shift policy and add hotter rhetorical spice to the PM's upcoming border control speech.

The divide on the right over immigration control boiled down to one question: when we talk of immigration can we stop at fairness (benefits restrictions) or do we have to talk numbers (quotas)? The guiding hand of Lynton Crosby shows that Nigel cannot be the only numbers voice on the domestic stage. The strangling hand of his backbenchers means that only numbers on immigration will trump the europhobes' hidden ace of a threatened no-confidence motion in the PM's leadership.

Daily Mail-speak on controlling EU immigration will silence rebels now and, it is hoped, squidge UKIP in six months time. It isn't pretty and will deeply disturb allies but it is the only way the PM can hold his party together and hope to be the largest party on May 7th. The former prime minister provided covering fire for Cameron by legitimising the numbers gambit with an appeal to fairness from European governments. He is doing so to stop his successor seeing his hopes of victory vanish in an unseemly stampede of Conservative MPs to the right six months before an election, 18 years on from his own nightmare.

The noise that John Major hinted should get louder though was not immigration oratory but the sound of diplomacy in action. With all member states signed up to a reform agenda there has never been a better time to lead from the front to achieve it. This agenda includes the prime minister's Bloomberg wish list for renegotiation - complete the single market, tweak ever closer union, less red tape, more parliamentary say and better control of immigration.

Major said Cameron's renegotiation would in practice mean getting these signed and sealed reforms delivered by 2017. This requires Cameron to turn up noise that Europe has agreed to reform and that Britain must be a big player in achieving this for future generations. Major provided covering fire to Cameron by legitimised the reform gambit with an appeal for UK leadership in working with European member states to secure reforms to modernise the continent.

However, it is plain that, in this reform agenda, immigration control is a moved goalpost for Cameron. Criticised by commentators, business and allies for lurching to the right, whilst being silent about successfully putting serious reform on the agenda, John Major also provided covering fire for Cameron by legitimising the link between immigration and these reforms. He slyly asked why free movement of people should be holy whilst the free movement of goods, services and money remained incomplete?

Finally, this week, the noise is about to get louder from the Ukraine. The cause, Russia, will sharpen the PM's language further. Cameron began this weekend in a choreographed raspberry to Putin with other G7 leaders. It is clear that the UK intends to step up the rhetoric and sanction action against the Kremlin leaving only Nigel supporting the autocratic Russian President on the foreign stage. For the isolationists in the Conservative Party, reluctant to support muscular diplomacy, John Major provided Cameron with covering fire that the UK is, with France, Europe's sword and shield in defence and foreign policy. This legitimises the link between an active European policy and the need for the UK to step up in a dangerous world. It also allows only the PM the space to appear stronger on the world stage, a place he no doubt wants to occupy in the run up to the election.

So the John Major defence offers the PM four ways to square the immigration, reform, allies and defence trap that has forced him into bluster about his failure to control immigration numbers and silence about his success on reform. With statesmanship he may surprise his critics and win his renegotiation. It's his to lose.