Was today’s Cameron speech like a “half-baked and barely serious” Oxford essay?

23rd January, 2013 5:55 pm
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).
  • “Cameron’s problems really start with this speech, they do not end….(he) answered none of these questions today, because he can’t. He doesn’t know the answers”., QUITE.

  • Gabrielle

    The trouble with Cameron – and Osborne – is that they’re dilettantes and have never developed beyond the personalities they had as very privileged students with a misplaced sense of being born to rule.

    For Cameron, being PM is an ego trip and something he once felt he ‘would be quite good at’. There’s no sense of public service, unless one means the public which consists of multi-millionaire kitchen supper fans.

    I suspect Cameron and his team of spads sweated blood over this speech – but it does read like an undergraduate effort aiming to cover up the gaps in their knowledge and reasoning.

  • David B

    Change the name to Ed Millabend and change the subject to one nation and the rest stays the same.

    The real issue is the British public want a clear and simple opportunity to express their view on the EU. Cameron is trying to set out a strategy that just might result in the UK staying in, but trying to hold the line against a referendum will become impossable and will increase the chance of a no vote. It is not a “Tory” party issue, this cuts across party lines and Labour may soon find out the hard way.

    The genesis of this speech is the purely opportunistic vote by Labour for a real terms cut in the EU budget. This raised the issue more firmly in public perception and the chickens have come home to roost. A policy of opposition to cause political problems for Cameron was bound to end in tears.

  • Pushing the referendum to after the election is a way to avoid the referendum!

  • JoblessDave

    The best thing Cameron and his advisers will say may well be that this speech, while it may hurt him (and the Tories), it does so the least of the other main parties.

    To extend the analogy, both Labour and the Lib Dems will be taking political aspirin this morning, hoping that nothing more positive than Merkel’s cautious reception comes out of Europe in the short term, while reviewing the last 3 years’ press releases to avoid “the dreaded u-turn”, and everyone will be closely watching the next set of polls: I personally expect a similar (but smaller) bounce to that seen after “Dave’s veto”, as the public appear to be broadly receptive to strong leadership on Europe, particularly where it reflects a non-Euro-phile majority.

    But be in no doubt: this was a landmark political event of 2013, and may possibly prove even worthy of note in a review of this decade, regardless of how poorly written the speech was.

  • Monkey_Bach

    How could Cameron have the answers to questions he cannot understand?

  • AlanGiles

    ” 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.”

    With all due respect, if “busking it” like this is common at Oxbridge, it might explain why we have some very poor politicians in all parties, devoid of sincereity. Why do something if you have no enthusiasm for it?

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