23/01/2013 06:42 GMT | Updated 25/03/2013 05:12 GMT

On Europe, 'If' Is What Matters

Despite being heavily-trailed as a 'red meat' speech for his army of eurosceptic backbenchers, it ended up being a speech in which bets were well and truly hedged. Count the number of times our PM used the word 'if'.


A coalition of anti-campaigners launch the 'If' campaign against global hunger later today.

This morning, however, David Cameron launched his own 'If' campaign - against the European Union, as currently constituted, and, er, against the UK Independence Party.

Despite being heavily-trailed as a 'tantric' speech containing plenty of 'red meat' for his army of eurosceptic backbenchers, it ended up being a speech in which bets were well and truly hedged. Count the number of times our PM used the word 'if' (how did it not appear in the The Huffington Post UK 'wordle' of his speech?).

"If we can negotiate such an arrangement, I will campaign for it with all my heart and soul", he declared at Bloomberg's London headquarters.

"If we leave the EU, we cannot of course leave Europe", he reminded his geography-challenged audience.

"If there is no appetite for a new Treaty for us all then of course Britain should be ready to address the changes we need in a negotiation with our European partners", he asserted.

And my favourite: "If a Conservative Government is elected we will introduce the enabling legislation immediately and pass it by the end of that year."

This last line is perhaps key to this whole debate: how will Cameron give us his in-out referendum if he isn't in charge of a Tory-only government come the morning of 8 May 2015?

As I've long argued, it'll be difficult for Cameron's Conservatives to secure a parliamentary majority at the next general election - especially on current trends and in the absence of boundary changes. No sitting PM has increased his or her share of the vote since 1974 - plus, the Tories trail in the polls and have presided over a double-dip recession which is on the verge of morphing into an unprecedented triple-dip depression.

Some of the shrewer Tory commentators now recognise this point. "If an in-or-out referendum is made conditional on a 2015 Tory majority, the nervous Eurocrats will be able to breath easily. Mr Cameron may as well make his referendum dependent on Scotland voting 'yes' in an independence referendum, Nick Clegg being ejected as Liberal Democrat leader by Christmas or the new royal baby being a blonde," wrote the Spectator's editor Fraser Nelson last week. "All these events are more likely than the Tories managing to win outright at the next election, certainly according to the bookmakers."

The odds are it'll either be a Labour majority government or a Labour/Lib Dem coalition come 2015, in which case today's (cast-iron?) referendum pledge, presumably, becomes null and void. Or, it'll be another Con-Dem coalition, in which Cameron will have to persuade the good ol' Lib Dems to get onboard and stop denouncing an in-out referendum as "dangerous" and "chilling".

I suppose, for Cameron and the Conservatives, the €64,000 question is this: Will Nick Clegg, the multilingual, half-Dutch, ex-MEP leader of Britain's most pro-European political party perform the mother of all U-turns and back such a referendum in the next parliament?