Cameron the great illusionist is heading for another win on Europe

The Brexit campaign has no one of greater standing than Owen Paterson and Nigel Lawson on its books, and no newspaper backing apart from the Daily Express

John Rentoul
Saturday 12 December 2015 23:33 GMT
David Cameron is on course to win his EU referendum
David Cameron is on course to win his EU referendum (Getty)

Did you know that umop apisdn is upside down upside down? We might need it. David Cameron is winning the European game. A lot of pro-Europeans say he is doing it all wrong, but they ought to be cheering him on because he is on course to scupper the Tory antis and Ukip by winning his referendum.

So topsy-turvy are things that my former colleague Owen Jones, a great advocate of Corbynism-McDonnellism, last week wrote what he called “partly a love letter” of praise to the Prime Minister, in which he said: “The Tories are very good at politics.”

Jones pointed out, admiringly, that “David Cameron’s EU negotiation is a sham”. So it is. The Prime Minister’s cover was blown by Sir Stephen Nickell of the Office for Budget Responsibility, who told MPs last week that the great big difficult thing that Cameron wants from his renegotiation, a four-year wait before EU immigrants can claim tax credits, would have “not much” effect on the number coming.

What is important about Cameron’s demand is that the Polish Prime Minister doesn’t want it, as she repeated when he visited her last week. The very difficulty of obtaining it raises its symbolic value. The danger in that, of course, is that Cameron will look bad if he fails to get it.

Our ComRes poll today shows two important things. One is that the four-year qualifying period is popular: 74 per cent support it. The other is that people are sceptical about Cameron’s ability to deliver it: only 31 per cent think he will obtain it; 37 per cent think he won’t and the rest – the sensible ones – have no idea.

The real findings, though, lie below the surface. They are that doing something that looks as if it might restrict immigration is popular, even if the economist at the OBR says it wouldn’t work, and that people don’t think politicians ever deliver.

If Cameron is able to deliver something that looks as if it might restrict immigration two things follow. One is that it doesn’t matter much if it doesn’t work. The other is that, if Cameron gets anything at all from the negotiation, it will be easy to exceed people’s low expectations of him.

Indeed, the very difficulty of Cameron’s demand has already had the desired effect: European officials in Brussels are scurrying around looking for alternatives. The “emergency brake” has been resurrected. The idea of temporary entry restrictions if public services are under strain has been taken out of the “absolutely unthinkable” cupboard and put on the negotiating table – just as long as it is called something else.

So, Cameron will get something from his renegotiation, even if it wasn’t what he originally asked for. He says he is open to other means of achieving the same end. As we also report, he seems to be preparing to retreat from the four-year waiting period. This may be because he could do that another way, which is to restrict tax credits to people who have paid taxes here for four years, whether they are British or not. It may be a “sham” negotiation, but Cameron has different ways of appearing to win it.

I am with Jones in admiring the Prime Minister’s skill in managing the “sentiments and emotions” of politics. He has achieved something extraordinary. He was told he had no chance in the last election because Nigel Farage would take too many votes from his base. He was criticised for conceding a referendum under pressure from Ukip. He was told he risked losing it. He still does of course, and you can argue that this is the wrong time to be holding a referendum, because we still don’t know how the euro crisis will play out. But Cameron has squashed Ukip. He has outplayed the anti-EU tendency in his own party. They demanded a referendum as a substitute for thinking about whether they really wanted to stay in the EU or not. Now they have got it, it is getting late to make the case for leaving. The great illusionist has distracted the audience for so long with his patter about getting rid of “ever closer union” and tax credits that the Outers have failed to gain a hearing.

I have previously commented that the Leave campaign has no one of greater standing than Owen Paterson and Nigel Lawson on its books, and no newspaper backing apart from the Daily Express. Last week, there was a minor flurry over a Daily Mail second editorial that said: “Withdrawing is the only way we will ever control mass immigration into this country.” But I understand that this was not intended to be a dramatic assertion of intent: Paul Dacre, the editor, is still hedging his bets.

David Cameron is the hero of the European cause, hailed by Owen Jones, while it is Jeremy Corbyn who has his doubts – although he keeps them to himself because his supporters are so keen. The world has indeed turned umop apisdn.

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