Breaking a promise is rarely this easy

David Cameron broke his cast iron promise of a Lisbon Treaty referendum on Wednesday. And since then everything has gone his way.

The promise fell apart this week because the treaty was finally ratified. It is now the basis of EU law. Un-signing would thus need a time machine or, and this is even less worthy of serious consideration, withdrawal from a trading block that makes up most of Britain’s trade.

So the Tories got off lightly with their common sense and widely expected move. While the Mail and Express whinged from the sidelines, the Sun rewarded Mr Cameron with a double page spread in which to recast a new pledge. And this one should prove less brittle.  

Refusing to hand over new powers is easy with no grand new treaty in the offing. So he promised that.

A Sovereignty Bill to equip English courts to interpret European law will amount to little in practice. So he promised that.

And attempting to negotiate a repatriation of powers need go only so far as ‘attempting’. So he promised that too.

Promising future referenda if another treaty crops up is also a headline grabbing pleasantry. It won’t bind the future governments who actually face new treaties, but it does at least maintain a popular euro-sceptic tone. So he promised that easy to keep and ignore pledge too.

But the real boon for David Cameron has been the response from his party.  

The Expenses scandal saw a lot of the old guard stand down to be replaced by fresh-faced central-office-friendly newbies. And that posed a problem. It was too clean and too easy. The dodgy wing of the Conservative Party that the public didn’t like and didn’t trust was swept aside without a fight. All very fortuitous. 

This matters to Cameron because he wants to be more than the lucky General of misinterpreted Napoleonic fame. He wants to be bold. He wants to be strong. He wants to prove his will and determination to modernise his party himself. In short he wants to be Tony Blair facing down left-wing cliques in the 1990s.  

Lisbon has given him a chance to at least appear that way, though without the risk of defeat that came attached to a simple vote on Clause Four.

A large part of his party still wants a referendum. And they have, in small but noteworthy numbers, publicly suggested voting on a renegotiation mandate.

This would of course be a high profile waste of time and money. David Cameron always refused to extend his pledge beyond ratification for that reason. He knew the rest of Europe could and would just ignore it. And he doesn’t want his Ministers hamstrung by, or his Government judged against, such a mandate.  

So this can help his image.

Right wing oddballs from far and wide can condemn him as often as they like and he will relish them doing so. Lord Tebbit for example is appalled, while MEPs David Hannan and Roger Helmer stood down from frontbench positions in protest. Mr Hannon, for those who forget, was briefly but widely hated by the public for his outspoken desire to scrap the NHS.

David Cameron can stand firm against these people with little risk to his electoral prospects as they make him look all the more moderate. A greater concern will be losing votes to UKIP at the next election. But the impression that he’ll sacrifice votes to take a much needed “tough” decision will probably win round more people than UKIP can steal.  

So for all the pain that Europe has caused the Tories in years gone by, it seems David Cameron is well in command of what the issue means for him, and how to turn it to his advantage.

Oh, and being insulted as ‘autistic’ by a French politician hardly goes down badly with English voters either.


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