Conservative MPs have shown their disapproval of the Prime Minister’s efforts by backing Brexit
So the summit is over, the deal has been done and we have a date for the British referendum. And what next? What does the outcome of the renegotiation mean for the referendum itself? The short answer is little if anything at all.
Nothing is unambiguous when it comes to EU negotiations, and David Cameron’s “new deal” for Britain is no exception. It is probably fair to say that he has achieved more than many experienced EU watchers might have considered possible, given the great difficulties in securing agreement over anything in today’s profoundly divided Union.
On the other hand, he clearly did not achieve all he set out to, or claimed he would. The promises from the Conservative Party manifesto related to restricting the ability to send child benefit abroad and making workers from other member states ineligible for welfare payments have not been kept, or at least not in their entirety. Promises of future treaty change to enshrine Britain’s opt out from ‘ever closer union’ are not the same as the ‘full on treaty change’ Cameron promised.
Moreover, it is open to question what, in practical terms, any of these changes might mean. Economists seem to agree that the changes to migrant worker benefits will have little or no impact on the numbers of EU citizens coming to the UK. It is hard to see what the exemption from ever closer union adds to a situation in which the UK was perfectly at liberty to block moves towards ever closer union anyway via its veto in treaty negotiations. And the sections of the deal addressing the relationship between euro ins’ and ‘outs’ is ambiguous enough that any conclusions will have to await the lessons of practical experience.
Yet whilst these things undoubtedly matter, the success or otherwise of the settlement achieved by David Cameron cannot be assessed by a close reading of the text itself. The deal was never going to provide the kind of fundamental transformation of the British relationship with the EU that some seemed to want. Nor will it feature prominently in the referendum campaign. Rather, its key implication will be within the Conservative party.
In a recent survey, we found a high proportion of Tory MPs were waiting on the outcome of the renegotiation to decide how to vote in the referendum. We are not beginning to realise that the Prime Minister’s damage limitation exercise has not limited the damage. It looks like half the parliamentary party may defect to the ‘leave camp’. Judged against this metric, the renegotiation has failed.
What was striking in this first weekend of the campaign itself was how quickly the deal seems to have been forgotten. From an obsession with the terms of the deal on Saturday, the British media has moved quickly and seamlessly to a consideration of who will be on which side, and what the ‘big issues’ are. Hardly surprisingly, these issues are not those debated into the evening in Brussels last Friday.