The long build-up to David Cameron's supposedly historic speech on Europe is now the subject of jokes, not least from the Prime Minister himself. He has compared the slow process and much-postponed delivery with the drawn-out joys of tantric sex. We will have to wait to discover whether the speech, first scheduled for early autumn, will generate heightened ecstasy, but I am excited by the novelty of such painstaking deliberation.
Tantric sex is not a simile normally applicable to the Government's activities. From the original NHS reforms, so rushed that a formal pause was required, to the Chancellor's crude positioning over benefit cuts, the quick one-night-stand, with unfortunate consequences for all involved, is usually a more appropriate image.
In the case of his Europe speech, no one can accuse Cameron of rushing it indiscriminately on the grounds of ideological purity or clunky political mischief making. He is taking his time because he has no choice. And given that he is attempting the near impossible, he needs all the time he can get.
Without delivering the final version, the Prime Minister has given a very clear idea what will be in it. He wants to renegotiate the UK's terms of EU membership but to remain inside, largely because of the single market. The Prime Minister notes the importance of making the rules for the market rather than merely obeying them. At the same time he will seek to repatriate some powers from Brussels. After which he would seek consent, almost certainly in a referendum, with a "No" vote leading to the UK's exit.
Superficially, Cameron is in a similar position to that of Harold Wilson when he became Prime Minister again in 1974 in a hung parliament and in the midst of deep economic gloom. In the run-up to the first election in 1974, Wilson had pledged he would renegotiate Britain's terms of membership and put them to a referendum. This policy was formed largely to keep his party united. Once elected, the Foreign Secretary, Jim Callaghan, spent months in talks with other members of the Common Market, as it was then. At the end, Wilson hailed a successful renegotiation and put the new "terms of membership" to the country in a referendum that they won easily.
As far as I can tell, only one observer from that era argues that the negotiations brought about substantial change to the UK's membership. He is the former Political Editor of the BBC, John Cole, who, in his memoir, suggested that Callaghan had achieved significant concessions. But even Callaghan is more modest in his own memoir. On the whole, most contemporary commentators and participants regarded the changes as fairly cosmetic.
There is one very big difference between now and then. For reasons of conviction and party management, Cameron needs to conduct a genuine, historic renegotiation of substance. Wilson's renegotiation was simply in order to provide cover for him and a few other senior figures to switch from opposition to membership to support in a referendum. The rest of the Labour Party had decided already whether they wanted to be in or out. The media and his party broadly recognised its limited relevance to the extent that he was not asked much about what form it would take. When questions were posed by the usually persistent Sir Robin Day on the BBC, Wilson tended to light his pipe noisily, suggest that it would be unwise to declare a position in advance, refer fleetingly to the unfair price of cod and move on.
Cameron is in an altogether different position in relation to negotiations, though not the offer of a referendum that he is reluctant to make but will do so, like Wilson, to keep his party together in the short term and reduce the threat from Ukip. For Cameron, the negotiation is of immense significance. He believes, as do William Hague and George Osborne, that the EU "tries to do too much", but that Britain's membership should continue. Crucially, this is the view of a significant number of his Eurosceptic MPs, including his former Press Secretary, George Eustice, who has proved an important unifying intermediary at times for Cameron over Europe. Eustice and others like him in the parliamentary party would contemplate withdrawal if the negotiation does not bring about major change.
In or out?
Wilson had no such group. The likes of Tony Benn and Michael Foot wanted to pull out and showed no interest in the renegotiation. The likes of Shirley Williams and Roy Jenkins wanted to stay in whatever the outcome. For Wilson, the referendum was the key moment. For Cameron, the negotiations are the first pivotal stage.
The delay in his speech is, therefore, wholly understandable, not least because the response of his European partners will be extremely important. Some are watching far more closely and warily than was the case when Wilson navigated his wily trip. For the Prime Minister, there is little point in making a speech hailing the broad objectives of a renegotiation if Germany and France immediately declare that Cameron can forget it, they are not giving him even more of a pick'n'mix menu than he has already.
But if Cameron minimises his objectives, or keeps them opaque, in order to ensure a subdued response from Merkel and Co, he risks incurring the wrath of his party. In seeking to reassure his Eurosceptics, he also risks unleashing events he can't control. To take one example, already there is only a small chance of the current Coalition continuing in another hung parliament. That chance will be nil if Cameron is trapped on a route that looks like leading to the UK pulling out of the EU.
Tantric sex sounds rather complicated, but it must be much easier, safer and fun than making a defining speech on Europe when being definitive is extremely dangerous or impossible. Having flirtatiously promised to deliver, Cameron can't keep us waiting much longer, though he probably should.