Analysis: Cameron prepares to push for EU ‘remain’ vote

It is increasingly clear Cameron will call for a 'remain' vote
It is increasingly clear Cameron will call for a 'remain' vote
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With every public utterance the Prime Minister removes doubt over EU stance.

I’m still firmly of the opinion that the EU referendum falls into the category of promises the Conservatives made at the last General Election that they anticipated would be negotiated away in coalition talks.

And as he basked in his unexpected victory in May, I suspect the Prime Minister quietly wondered how on earth he would deliver the vote, keep Britain in the EU - the outcome he has always wanted- and hold his party together.

In the months that followed, David Cameron did all he could to appear neutral. He knew that any suggestion that his position was pre-determined would only help the Eurosceptics on his own backbenches.

His Chatham House speech, setting out Britian’s demands, was carefully balanced.

“So I have every confidence that we will achieve an agreement that works for Britain and works for our European partners,” he said.

“And if and when we do so, as I said 3 years ago, I will campaign to keep Britain inside a reformed European Union.

“I’ll campaign for it with all my heart and all my soul because that will be unambiguously in our national interest.

“But if we can’t reach such an agreement and if Britain’s concerns were to be met with a deaf ear, which I do not believe will happen then we will have to think again about whether this European Union is right for us.

“As I have said before – I rule nothing out.”

But the very limited nature of the Prime Minister’s demands and the struggle to even deliver on those - particularly the desire for new restrictions on in-work benefits - has made it impossible to maintain the pretence that the renegotiation represents an attempt to fundamentally reshape Britain’s relationship with Europe.

In reality, the challenge for Mr Cameron has been to convince European leaders to play along with it. The Prime Minister has needed his European colleagues to parade on television with anguished faces complaining about the hard bargain Mr Cameron is driving when to do so will cause them problems of their own at home.

Either because he feels the need to start generating support for the deal, or because he senses EU leaders are tiring of the whole affair, the New Year has brought a marked change of tone from the PM.

Speaking after talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel this week, he said: “We believe that all these issues can be dealt with. The discussions are going well. They’re hard, they’re tough, these are difficult issues but I’m confident that with goodwill - and there is goodwill on all sides - we can bring these negotiations to a conclusion and then hold the referendum that we promised in our election manifesto and we’ve now legislated for in Parliament.

“In the end the choice will be for the British people but I want to make sure they have the very best choice of staying in a reformed European Union, giving Britain the best of both worlds.”

Does that sound like a man in any danger of recommending a ‘leave’ vote?

Even Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who has previously spoken about Britain leaving the EU in the absence of change, today struggled to maintain the pretence.

Asked if he would be taking advantage of the freedom Mr Cameron is offering ministers to campaign to leave, he said: “I can’t envisage us negotiating a deal which the Prime Minister thinks is good enough to recommend to the British people and which I feel I want to campaign against. I can’t envisage that circumstance.”

Whatever conclusions the talks reach in the coming weeks, the Prime Minister will recommend Britain stays. All that remains to discover is when the referendum will be held.