Billed as the event that would end the European question in UK politics, David Cameron finally delivered his long-awaited speech on Europe today. If there was any silver lining to the postponement of the speech, then it was the fact that circumstances meant he had to deliver it in London. It's about time that Conservative prime ministers (Churchill, Thatcher) stopped addressing foreign audiences about Britain's role in Europe and started delivering a few home truths to their British fellow citizens.
To give credit where it is due, Cameron did deliver one such home truth, in firmly rejecting the notion of Britain 'doing a Norway' - implementing all EU rules with no say. Indeed, much of the first part of his speech - the part delivered as prime minister of the coalition government - was perfectly sensible in saying that remaining in the EU is in Britain's best interests and in calling for reform of the EU to achieve competitiveness, complete the single market and secure openness. He also showed he had listened to President Obama in saying that EU membership strengthens the UK's relationship with the US.
The trouble started when he changed hats to speak as Tory party leader pitching to the Eurosceptic gallery, and instead of delivering certainties created years of uncertainty in declaring himself in favour of an in/out referendum of the EU - but only in five years' time after a renegotiation of Britain's relationship with the EU. And of course only if the Tories win a majority in the 2015 general election... He played with fire in talking up the possibility of a 'Brexit' if a unilateral repatriation exercise failed - and cannot even guarantee his own 'Yes' vote. This part of his speech was riddled with false promises based on hypotheses unlikely to be realised, starting with the assumption that the 'repatriation' exercise is based on, namely that the eurozone needs and will enact Treaty change. Cameron painted his repatriation exercise as any easy one, but our partners are not going to let the UK cannot simply pick and choose which rules it wishes to follow and still reap all the benefits.
It was also shot through with contradictions. He recalled the current UK effort to pull out of EU policing and criminal justice measures in the same breath as he - rightly - stressed the importance of European cooperation on crime and terrorism. While acknowledging that the Single Market needed a common set of rules to function, but then claimed it was a fallacy that 'an infinitely level playing field' was attainable. For good measure, he gratuitously insulted directly-elected Members of the European Parliament by ignorantly saying that only national parliaments are democratic!
The real problem for Cameron is the head bangers in his own party who, unlike most of the public, are obsessed with the supposed loss of 'sovereignty' that EU membership involves (ignoring the fact the fact non-membership in fact leaves us alone and far more at the mercy of events). He is jeopardising the interests of his country for internal party stability in a horribly dangerous and irresponsible gamble. The last thing we need in the current economic climate is five years of discouragement to investment for jobs in Britain while a 'new settlement' is supposedly negotiated and put to a vote. Far better to work with our like-minded EU partners in campaigning for legitimate reform for a relevant, more focused and better-value EU than alienate them with a wearying and distracting negotiation with an uncertain outcome.