It has been an odd day for the impending referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, at least for those who thought they had firm backing from at least some top Tories.
First off David Cameron, the prime minister who is predicted to lead the campaign for Britain to remain within the EU, told businessmen at a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference that:
“The argument is not whether Britain could survive outside the EU. Of course it could. The argument is how are we going to be best off. That is the argument I hope we are going to be making together after this successful negotiation.”
At the same time his fellow Bullingdon Club member and Oxford contemporary (and, occasionally, the London mayor) Boris Johnson wrote a piece for the Telegraph in which he praised Cameron for threatening to “set Britain free”:
“Free to make our own laws and our own trade deals; to have impact in the world commensurate with our own abilities, no longer believing that we can somehow puff ourselves up and ‘punch above our weight’ by contriving to call the shots among 28 nations in the smoke-free corridors of Brussels.
“No longer to sacrifice parliamentary democracy for diplomatic ‘influence’; no longer the subset of a superstate; no longer the unwilling component of a unique and unprecedented attempt at political unification, but independent, standing or falling on our own merits.”
Johnson went on to claim claim that Call Me Dave might actually lead the campaign to quit the EU – a tale which will have many Fleet Street hacks snorting into their pints tonight.
Indeed the entire referendum saga has been a balancing act of appearing to demand things from Europe without actually asking for anything that the rest of the bloc will refuse.
Cameron, despite having little affection for the EU, appears to have no desire to be remembered as the prime minister who quit the club, and also faces pressure from many business groups who want to keep Britain in.
Johnson’s position is vaguer. His long-held ambition to become prime minister was much damaged by Cameron’s victory in the general election, which has made chancellor George Osborne the favourite for the role.
The common wisdom is that Johnson’s best bet at snatching the job from Osbo is to campaign to leave the EU, with a British exit from the bloc likely to result in Cameron and Osborne’s downfall.
Much will no doubt be said by the main Tories about the European referendum in the coming months. How much of it has to do with the question at hand is dubious.