1. THE TORY MANIFESTO REALLY ISN'T GOSPEL
The Conservative manifesto was pretty clear last year on the vexed issue of migrant benefits. It thundered: “We will insist that EU migrants who want to claim tax credits and child benefit must live here and contribute to our country for a minimum of four years”.
The PM even ramped up the manifesto demands in his letter to Donald Tusk last November, vowing: “People coming to Britain from the EU must live here and contribute for four years before they qualify for in-work benefits or social housing. And that we should end the practice of sending child benefit overseas.”
Well, guess what? Today’s draft deal makes two concessions. On tax credits, migrants will be subject to ‘graduated’ curbs on benefits. They won’t be able to claim welfare on arrival in the UK, but thanks to a taper (the details of which are yet to be agreed) they will be gradually allowed access to benefits over their first four years here.
And on child benefit, Cameron has agreed to water down this demand too. There’s now an ‘option’ to ‘index’ child benefit to match the ‘standard of living’ of the migrant’s home country. Not quite an ‘end’ to the practice of sending the benefit overseas, but a serious cut in the cash paid nonetheless.
Meanwhile, critics argue that the ‘taper’ will ironically create an incentive for migrants to stay longer in the UK. And there are unresolved issues on the ‘emergency brake’ that enacts these benefit curbs: Eastern European states may not want the brake to apply for many years, and it needs the whole of the European Council to finally approve it.
Tory Eurosceptics are unhappy that the manifesto pledges are being wheedled out of. The PM himself sought to re-write that manifesto today, referring to a plan to ban migrants for four years from “full in work benefits”. Note that word ‘full’. He also claimed he’d delivered on child benefit ‘local’ rates. Cameron today said: "I can say hand on heart I have delivered the commitments that I’ve made in my manifesto". That was a white lie at best and a big fat fib at worst.
2. BUT IT REALLY DOESN'T MATTER
Call it cynical, call it realpolitik. Yet finessing the manifesto pledges isn’t worrying many around the PM. First, not many people even knew or know the detail of this migrant ban or child benefit curb. And Cameron is rather good at selling his policies to the public, as the last general election proved.
On both tax credits and child benefit, No10 is sanguine. The PM is delighted to have any pledge on four years, even if it is ‘upto four years’. Ditto child benefit. If he can persuade voters he’s got tough on this stuff, he may have done enough to put in place a firebreak on the issue.
And perhaps one of the most powerful things in Cameron’s favour is his own pulling power. He can sell this stuff.
Many Labour voters are in the bag. Moreover, a recent YouGov poll shows that Tory voters – and floating voters – are much more likely to back the Remain camp if Cameron himself reassures them he’s got a good deal for Britain.
3. THE WELFARE CURBS MAY HAVE A NEGLIGIBLE IMPACT ON IMMIGRATION.
Trickier for Cameron is immigration itself. As for whether any of his deal will make a blind bit of difference to levels of EU migration to the UK, that’s far from clear. Net EU migration to the UK last year was a whopping 180,000. Government stats show that 266,000 EU migrants claimed in-work benefits but economist Jonathan Portes claims the number affected is much lower and there’s little proof that ‘benefit tourism’ is what pulls people to the UK rather than our booming jobs market. The introduction of the National Living Wage will probably offset any losses from welfare curbs.
Cameron has got his ‘emergency brake’ in the bag, as Brussels has agreed it currently applies. But could there be a legal challenge to the new definition that claims migrants are putting ‘excessive pressure’ on public services or the job market – especially as working migrants pay plenty of tax.
The PM got some key wins on the other issues that really vex some voters: on kicking out those involved in sham marriages, fraudsters and – most important of all – those who pose a terror or security threat. By redefining ‘present threat’ to say that need not be an ‘imminent’ threat, he’s made it easier to argue European law won’t be allowed to block common sense.
Polls suggest that voters aren’t actually keen on politicians who ‘bang on about Europe’ (Cameron’s infamous phrase). But voters do get furious about the way the European Court of Human Rights blocks deportations of people like Abu Qatada. That’s another area the PM may need to push harder, away from his Tusk deal. Michael Gove's Bill of Rights may give us more clues.
4. BRUSSELS BLINKED FIRST ON SOME KEY DEMANDS.
On areas like ensuring the UK is not discriminated against by the Eurozone, on competitivenesss, on writing into law that the UK will never be subject to ‘ever closer union’, on 'no more bailouts', on ‘sovereignty’ and creating a new ‘red card’ to block fresh Brussels powers, Cameron has some bankable wins.
He’s got Brussels to agree the UK’s migration levels are already so high that exceptional measures are needed. And it looks like he’s got them to agree that the status of this deal will have effect in international law.
Of course, there’s lots of Eurosceptic criticism. The PM uses the Whitehall and Brussels jargon that he has four different ‘baskets’ of demands (though the running joke is among Eurosceps is that his whole renegotiation is itself a ‘basket case’). The ‘red card’ could be very difficult to enact, as it requires 55% of all countries’ parliaments to agree.
The real block on the welfare deal could be the Eastern Europeans worried about discrimination against their citizens who’ve moved to the UK. Today, Poland’s Europe minister Konrad Szymański said: “The U.K.’s first three demands are acceptable. The fourth one is the problem.” But he added this crucial caveat: “We can’t accept discrimination but then how does Cameron offer something for people who are against migration? We understand British concerns. They have the right to shape their labour market.”
That’s proof that key states are very worried indeed that unless they gives the UK enough ground, it could quit for good. Cameron’s mandate last May remains his most powerful weapon. No wonder one of his first trips to sell this deal is to Warsaw.
5. BORIS STILL HAS THE CAPACITY TO IRRITATE DAVE
Even before the deal was unveiled at 11.30am UK time, Boris Johnson was out tweaking the PM’s tail about “full, quivering magnitude” of the draft text. Bojo said ‘much, much more needs to be done’ and called for a better red card scheme to prove that “Britain’s an independent sovereign country”.
Some may see Boris’s words as being helpful to the PM, allowing him to argue across Europe that some big figures back home still want a better deal. But given the state of relations between No.10 and Boris, that’s unlikely. More likely, he was playing to the gallery of Eurosceptics he needs to win in a future leadership contest. Yet many expect him to eventually come round to the Dave Deal.
Tonight, Theresa May broke cover to say the draft was ‘the basis for a deal’. Plenty of people saw that as her clearest signal yet that she would not lead the Brexit campaign.
The fallout in the Tory party will be limited if May and Boris both eventually back the PM. Yet Boris, who’s in line for a Cabinet job as part of the ‘healing process’ after the referendum, won’t have endeared himself to his boss by torpedo-ing Cameron’s claims that this was a big victory.
6. CAMERON HAS FIRED THE STARTING GUN FOR THE 'IN' CAMPAIGN.
Politics is not about getting everything you want. It’s about the most important bits of what you want. Most voters get that. The Eurosceptics may well be right that most of the powers the PM has ‘won’ from Brussels are ‘trivial’ and ‘don’t matter’. But even if that’s true, and even if the details of the Brussels deal are lost on most voters, Cameron believes that ultimately it’s the bigger issues of jobs and national security that will swing the vote towards Remain.
Today, it was not a coincidence that he said the argument boils down to prosperity and security. And Theresa May’s decision to back him will play strongly into the terrorism, crime and immigration themes.
As ever, Cameron is a lucky general in that his opponents (from David Davis to Gordon Brown to Ed Miliband) often underestimate him. The voters won’t notice if the rival ‘Leave’ camps are at war. But they will notice if their main spokesmen turn out to be the divisive Nigel Farage or a figure like Iain Duncan Smith or Chris Grayling.
For all the talk about wanting to see further progress, Cameron effectively fired the starting gun on an EU referendum race that now looks likely to take place in June. And while he has a two-week head start (before the deal is finalised) he warned his Cabinet today that Eurosceptics won't be allowed to speak out until after the deal is done.
His most telling line today was this: "Sometimes people say to me: 'If you weren't in the European Union, would you opt to join the European Union?' and today I can give a very clear answer.
"If I could get these terms for British membership I sure would opt in to the European Union because these are good terms and they are different to what other countries have."
There's a long way to go yet, but No.10 thinks 'good' and 'different' may be enough to win the day.