HUER'S CALL BY MIKE SAGAR-FENTON: We've got the referendum, but where will it lead...
So, In, Out, as simple as that?
I have to confess a sneaking admiration for Mr Cameron, although his party will always be anathema to me. His speech challenging the EU last week was delivered with considerable grace and skill. I've tried to imagine his words in the mouths of previous Tory leaders: Margaret Thatcher would have sounded shrill and belligerent, while Michael Howard would have made it sound, as with all his pronouncements, like a concealed death threat. Cameron managed to make it sound plausible and corporate, like the Head Boy he probably was.
It was overtly addressed to us, the people of Britain. And presumably Scotland, whose own referendum is already on the blocks. The EU has warned that an independent Scotland would have to re-apply for membership, so we could finish with a situation where Scotland is In while we're Out. Or vice versa. As with so many aspects of the continental quadrille, farce is never far away.
The next audience cohort was, as everyone knew, behind Mr Cameron's shoulder-blades with daggers poised. Job done. Daggers turned to ecstatically-waved order papers as the Tory old guard heard the speech as a firm rebuke to Johnny Foreigner, telling them that if they didn't stop their nonsense we'd take a quick vote and the Continent would be Cut Off. Bless.
The words landed with a thump on the desk of Nigel Farage, who'd cloned himself for the day to appear on every possible medium. He'd thrown the dare, and David had thrown it back, earning himself an incalculable number of wavering UKIP votes and leaving Farage a wobbly plank to walk into the next election. They landed and bounced right up the nose of Ed Miliband, who seemed surprisingly taken aback, leading to overtime in the Labour fudge factory. Where does Labour stand? Answers on a postcard ... It was a firm slap in the face of Nick Clegg, whose unusually unequivocal dissent was sadly delivered not in the House but from what appeared to be the back of a store cupboard. Mere collateral damage in Cameron's calculations, worth the hurt looks to come.
But of course the real audience was sitting in the capitals of Europe going will-he won't-he, blimey, he has. He'd wound up the egg-timer which is now clicking its way towards 2017.
If. If Cameron wins an outright majority in 2015 and doesn't lose to a Lab-Lib two-way tandem. If no international crisis occurs to postpone such divisive business indefinitely. If the EU hasn't cobbled together a delicious-looking but weightless plateful of morsels to allow him to claim his victory. If the EU itself hasn't already imploded.
But you have to sympathise with the leaders of the other 26. Britain's attitude in the community has always been that of a sulky child. We've whinged and whined, occasionally asked for our toys back, and threatened before to go home on our own, though never as clearly as now. France and Germany are doing what they've done many times already, sucking in their cheeks, trying to find out what diddums wants now, promising anything (almost) for a quiet life.
What do we want now? That's where, for all Cameron's diplomacy, we see the Tory in the ointment. Yes, we all want to halt the slide into a foredoomed United States of Europe, and we may find many unexpected allies there, but what else? Setting an ultimatum has bought time but has only encouraged the Little Englanders who finally see their goal as achievable. Summarising Cameron's own vague list of demands it seems that Britain wants the freedom to make our workers work longer hours in worse conditions less protected by Health & Safety in a more ruthlessly competitive labour market with no recourse to Human Rights. In fact right back to Scene Two of the Olympic Opening Ceremony, chimneys and all. No wonder fastidious European diplomats are looking quietly appalled while trying to make a response which doesn't sound too judgemental.
A more flexible European association is highly desirable. But a more flexible EU is virtually impossible. It would be like Parliament having to seek approval for every piece of legislation from every county in Britain. We're right to seek improvement but ultimately we stand together or we stand alone. In or Out.