Now that the Prime Minister has unveiled his demands – sorry, “objectives” – for EU reform as a condition of Britain retaining its membership, it might have been expected the great debate would have come alive and the In camp, in particular, would find itself re-energised. If anything, the opposite is the case. The dismay of Europhiles, or at any rate the more intelligent ones, is palpable.
Of course Europhiles would much have preferred to have no referendum and no negotiations – just ever-closer union, on the model of an imploding neutron star. But since negotiations have been made inevitable by political circumstances, it was important to the In campaign that they should be conducted in a persuasive way, with a cosmetic appearance of tough bargaining, with Britain conceding some points and gaining others, so that the Prime Minister could credibly pronounce himself satisfied and lead a strong campaign against Brexit.
Instead, the limp proposals he has put forward are so ineffectual as to brand him a Brussels poodle peddling sham negotiations to convince the British public. That perception could be fatal to British EU membership. Cameron is in an unenviable position, caused by his Janus-faced behaviour on the European issue. He loathes the notion of leaving the EU: he is an establishment man through and through and the establishment consensus is that only unsophisticated golf club bores in blazers would contemplate Brexit.
His speeches are larded with dire cautions against leaving, even his letter to Donald Tusk partly read like a paean of praise to the EU and all its works and pomps, qualified by a few maiden auntish threats, not to lead a Brexit campaign but raising the possibility that people might think again if his incredibly modest demands are not met. It is extravagantly disingenuous of French politicians to complain a gun has been put to their heads when everyone can see it is a water pistol.
The In campaign must have welcomed the instant response of Martin Schulz and Jean-Claude Juncker, condemning David Cameron’s proposed four-year moratorium on in-work benefits for migrants as illegal: it made it look, as it was intended to do, as if Cameron’s demands had some substance. They do not. Delayed benefits will not deter a single migrant and the Cameron proposals would go nowhere near re-establishing control of Britain’s borders, the core referendum issue.
It is difficult to imagine the Prime Minister keeping his Eurosceptic MPs on side now. The EU is so confident he can be relied on to keep Britain a member it has not even factored Brexit in to its latest economic forecasts. But the tricksy approach, which can work in internal party management (“David privately agrees with you”), is doomed to failure when Eurocrats read Cameron’s pro-EU domestic soundbites even while he is pretending to play hard (but not very hard) to get in Brussels.
Even quite recently Brexit seemed a remote possibility. But this schizophrenic performance impresses nobody, least of all the British electorate. The In camp is now not far away from losing the plot entirely.