Adrian Hamilton: Cameron, Europe and pure waffle

Tone, as Tony Blair found, only works for so long once you’re in government
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Is Europe David Cameron's Clause IV moment – the point at which he faces down his own party and, using the prospect of power, simply overrides their most deep-seated prejudices? It would be wonderful to think so. It might even make a man out of the putative Prime Minister, who still appears a being in progress, trying to find not just power but what he really believes in.

But of course it won't happen – isn't happening indeed. Cameron is not a confrontationalist by nature nor a politician for the grand gesture. He seeks modernisation by tone not by policy. Europe isn't quite a Clause IV issue for the Tory Party, although it shares with that issue the role of a litmus test of the party's most basic beliefs. Nor is it viewed by the public in the way that the Labour Party's commitment to nationalisation came to appear as a symbol of the party's inability to break from a redundant past.

Neil Kinnock forged the way to a modernised party by tilting at the nationalisation windmill and Tony Blair followed him by forcing the pace on a whole host of other commitments, from tax to education. There was nothing that the leader of New Labour enjoyed more than having a battle with his own party to show how much more in tune with the electorate and the right wing press he was. The Tories he feared, almost obsessively. His own backbenchers he came to take entirely for granted.

David Cameron is the opposite. He isn't frightened of the ruling party. He enjoys lashing them. But he is still nervous – and with good reason – of a backbench that has consistently torn his party apart on the issue of Europe and turned on its leaders whenever they appeared to be going native on the Continent.

How else do you explain Cameron's extraordinary decision to pull out of the European People's Party grouping in the European parliament and to try and construct instead a coven of non-federalist right-wingers – a pursuit that has brought him into disrepute across Europe, lost him putative friends amongst the centre right leaders of France, Germany and the smaller countries on the fringe, and looked just plain barmy to the ordinary members of the British public who took any notice at all?

How else, too, to explain the "cast iron" guarantee to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, a hostage to fortune which was bound to be taken at face value for all the Jesuitical efforts to explain it away now that the treaty has been signed by all 27 EU members? Cameron made the gesture to look tough on Europe. He can hardly complain now if people took him at his word.

It's not that he has particularly strong views on the subject. Those who know him say he is instinctively a eurosceptic. But in so far as it is ever possible to discern anything that the Tory leader is prepared to go to the wall for, it is not Europe. If anything he seems just disinterested in the issue, treating Europe as a distraction which he wishes would go away.

It won't, of course. His immediate problem is how to deal with the run-up to the general election. On that score, his statement yesterday, while hardly imposing, is a carefully-choreographed display of skating on thin ice. It won't convince anyone. But a Tory party this close to power is not going to derail the engine. And it may, at a stretch, enable him to bat back the accusations of pusillanimity from the government by replying that Labour too has reneged on its promises to hold a referendum and that the Conservatives are at least committed to row back on the powers it has given away to Brussels and will pass a bill making sure that never again can a treaty be passed without a referendum.

The government may scoff at such suggestions, pointing out – quite correctly – that on Europe the Tory king has no clothes. But given the British public's suspicion of Brussels, it is not an assault that can be pressed too far without risking the counter-claim that Labour is not only weak as far as the EU is concerned but that it actually wants to give up national competence in key areas.

That may get Cameron through to the election but it won't wash once he comes to power. Then (if it happens) Cameron will have to explain to his fellow European leaders as well as the public just what he means by all this talk of "legal locks," a "sovereignty Bill", a "British mandate" and "British Guarantees".

It's not that a policy of reclaiming jurisdiction and competence is impossible. As Cameron himself pointed out yesterday, this is essentially what the Germans have done through the ruling on Lisbon of their constitutional court. A British government could do it by amending the European communities court. In a Europe of 27 at a time of economic recession, every country is pursuing its national interests at the moment. The argument, too often put about by Euro-enthusiasts, that Europe is a federalist train gathering speed which we must board or be left behind bears little relationship to the realities on the ground. The EU, after the Lisbon Treaty, will start to move, but in precisely what direction remains an unresolved question for all its members, not just Britain.

But then for a politician such as David Cameron for whom tone is all, the tone yesterday was being used to confuse intention not define it. Most of Britain's partners will be reassured by what he didn't do – threaten to overthrow Lisbon or even leave the EU. The eurosceptics in his party will not be reassured for precisely the same reason. The public at large won't know what to make of it – and are not meant to – other than a tough-sounding approach.

Yesterday was just waffle. After an election, if victorious, Cameron will have to react to events. If he keeps up a stance of straight hostility to the EU, however gestural, he will find himself and the country sidelined. If he does not, he will store up trouble with his backbenchers. Tone, as Tony Blair found, only works so long in government. Sooner or later David Cameron is going to have to have his Clause IV moment on Europe and then we may see the measure of the man.