James Reed: PM's position on EU is clear so hold the referendum now

HIS negotiations are ongoing, but David Cameron has already revealed the recommendation he will make to the British public when he finally calls the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.

Is David Cameron following Angela Merkel's lead?

Of course, he hasn’t said so in as many words. He cannot very well blurt out “I want you to vote ‘remain’” after repeatedly insisting his conclusion would be dictated by the outcome of his talks. But with every public utterance on the subject, the Prime Minister removes.

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 hoped could be jettisoned in coalition talks – Mr Cameron did not expect to head the first majority Conservative government in 18 years.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

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, the Tory leader 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 make their case.

His Chatham House speech, setting out Britain’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 three 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 increasingly difficult 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.

Either because he feels the need to start generating support for the deal, or because he senses EU leaders are tiring of having to explain to their own voters why the Brits appear to be getting special treatment, the New Year has brought a marked change of tone from the PM.

After talks with German chancellor Angela Merkel last week, Mr Cameron said: “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? There was more of the same over the weekend as he confirmed no contingency plans are being made in Whitehall for an EU exit. Even Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, who has previously spoken about Britain leaving the EU in the absence of change, has struggled to maintain the pretence.

Asked last week 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.”

So we can now be sure that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and the Foreign Secretary will be campaigning for Britain to stay in.

They will be joined by Jeremy Corbyn, following Hilary Benn’s success in securing a guarantee that Labour’s frontbench would campaign for an ‘In’ vote.

The Liberal Democrats, unstinting supporters of the EU, will campaign to stay as will the SNP, Britain’s previous three Prime Ministers and the major business groups. While there are obsessives on each side, polling points to the general population’s indifference on the EU issue. It would be a sensational result to see them ignore such an array of voices urging them to vote for the status quo.

Britain is going to stay in the European Union and the only reason to stall the process is to delay a painful schism in the Conservative Party.

It’s time for Mr Cameron to bring this hollow process to an end, call the vote and focus his, and the country’s, energies on the issues that really matter.

James Reed is political editor of The Yorkshire Post.