First, in the spirit of transparency, a confession. I am an Oxford arts graduate. I am familiar with the three am agonies of rustling up an essay when you know bugger all about a subject. And I have sat there the next day – well, later that day – trying to keep a straight face and my eyes open as I read out the semi-coherent sentences that had been contrived just a few hours earlier.
David Cameron, my dear Oxford contemporary, managed to get through his speech at Bloomberg today without nodding off or smirking too blatantly at his own text. But in other ways it resembled all too clearly one of those half-baked and barely serious essays I used to read out to blameless academics a quarter of a century ago.
Gosh, there’s just so much wrong with the European Union, he explained. It’s not flexible enough, it’s not open enough, it’s not “competitive” enough – whatever that’s supposed to mean. We’re getting killed by Asia and Latin America. We’ve had it, basically. Call the whole thing off.
But no! Don’t do that. That would be wrong. What about Washington, Beijing, Delhi… they want us in! They only listen to us because we’re in the EU. So Dave will spend the next few years slagging off the EU as part of a vigorous and principled negotiation, declare that he has cut a deal, and then explain why we should vote to stay in. Got it. Crystal clear.
This speech was essentially all about party management, and not the start of a serious debate about the EU and Britain’s place in it. It made some reasonable if unexceptional criticisms, flirted with unthinking Euroscepticism, and chucked in some florid rhetoric for good measure (“Today, hundreds of millions dwell in freedom…”). It attempted to convince Better Off Outers that the speaker was really their man, while providing a sop to diplomatic friends that that his true theme was Better Off In. It was an attempt to offer all things to all listeners in one handy package.
As Ed Miliband said at last week’s PMQs, Cameron’s problems really start with this speech, they do not end. What, specifically, does Dave want out of these negotiations? What are the “red lines”? What is acceptable, and what not? What will success look like, and is there a snowball’s chance in hell that any of it is achievable?
The Prime Minister answered none of these questions today, because he can’t. He doesn’t know the answers. We have now reached that second dangerous half hour in the tutorial when – if the tutor is still awake – the sharp questioning begins and we find out just what the student really knows.
Comrades, I have been there. I have known that queasy feeling when the distinguished don looks over his or her spectacles and enquires (more or less politely) what exactly I was getting at. I rarely knew, and the sad part is I don’t think Dave does either. This cannot end well.
Beta minus (query double minus).