WMN opinion: Cameron fires starting gun on EU 'in or out' campaign
How many Conservative Prime Ministers have been dogged by divisions over Europe? In the years since we joined in 1973, that's an easy question – all of them. Edward Heath was considered a traitor by many in his own party for signing Britain up to the Common Market; Margaret Thatcher was famously portrayed as being tough on the EU, while actually passing further powers to Brussels; John Major was left ranting about the plotters behind his back seeking to undermine him on European issues and David Cameron has found, very quickly, that holding a coalition together is child's play compared to trying to satisfy many of his party – cabinet members as well as back benchers – on the vexed issue of the European Union.
So against that background it is not surprising that Mr Cameron should want to try to lance the boil once and for all. His promise to British voters that they will be able to vote in or out of Europe in a referendum to be held no later than 2017 sounds, at first glance, as if it will do just that. He will be campaigning for a vote to remain part of the EU, but with a newly negotiated position that repatriates some policies away from Brussels and back to Westminster – a kind of EU-lite. He presumably hopes that such an endorsement will give him and future Prime Ministers the clear mandate they need to remain inside the EU without the constant carping from opponents that "the people" want out.
There will be much pain before then, however. First of all 2017 is a very long way away. Already Mr Cameron's pledge to renegotiate Britain's place in Europe has drawn scorn from the French and the Germans – the French saying they will be "rolling out the red carpet" to British-based businesses who want to re-locate to Paris if the UK pulls out of the EU and the Germans complaining that you can't join a league that plays football only to insist you want to pay rugby instead. We are going to have to put up with a lot more of that.
Secondly the starting gun has now been well and truly fired in the battle to persuade electors to vote one way or the other over Europe. Highly motivated and skilled campaigners on the "no" side will waste no time in exploiting every opportunity to turn the debate their way. This could be the longest referendum campaign in history. Some voters may think the campaign for and against Europe has already been running for some 40 years. They ain't seen nothing yet. Now that an actual referendum is in sight the activity will be ramped up a hundredfold at least.
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So would Mr Cameron have been better off simply managing his way through all the noise and fury surrounding Europe? Politically, he probably would. And yet perhaps he is right. Perhaps it really is time to have a potentially game-changing in or out vote to put this issue to bed, once and for all. There will be plenty of time, as the arguments roll on, to consider which way to vote. But buckle up, it could be a bumpy ride.