Why Dave's speech was a masterstroke

Many have argued that Cameron's speech was 'marvellous', giving Britons the right to choose how they are governed. Even our Political Editor, Alex Wickham, agrees

Ball's in your court, Miliband...
Alex Wickham, UK Politics Editor
On 27 January 2013 18:06

Just ten days had passed since the candid words of Steve Hilton, the Ianuccian former Downing Street policy chief, had found their way across the Atlantic from a Californian campus to the Sunday Times newsroom.

“Very often you’ll wake up in the morning and hear on the radio or the news or see something in the newspapers about something the government is doing. And you think, well, hang on a second — it’s not just that we didn’t know it was happening, but we don’t even agree with it!  The government can be doing things … and we don’t agree with it? How can that be?”

Hardly surprising that the Prime Minister’s confidants prefer the story that their boss’ early morning moments are consumed by an internal battle over whether to have cereal or porridge for breakfast.

But when David Cameron awoke from his slumber at the crack of dawn on Wednesday, the troubles raised by Hilton seemed as far away as the blue-sky scholar himself. Thursday’s headlines were arguably his best of the last three years.

Dave’s historic pledge to deliver an in/out referendum before the end of 2017 marks a hugely significant milestone for Britain’s relationship with Europe. The Mail gave Cameron his dream splash with “Yes, Prime Minister”, while the Telegraph offered him “the highest praise” and the Sun awarded “Top Merks”.

Only the fall of Gaddafi and the veto of EU treaty changes in winter 2011 have provided the PM with comparable adulation from the right-wing press.

One aide to a rebellious Tory maverick - certainly no Cameroon - told me after the speech that the move was a “masterstroke”. Why such praise from someone who is hardly a friend of the PM? Has Dave finally placated the eurosceptic wing of the party?

As a matter of principle there is no doubt that calling for a referendum was the right thing to do. A generation of voters have not had the chance to have their say on our relationship with the EU. Purely in the interests of democracy, Cameron’s was a noble act.

But it is much more than that. When Tory apparatchiks talk of a masterstrokes, they refer to the strategic consequences of pledging an unequivocal in/out referendum.

Just hours after Dave’s Bloomberg address, he was baiting Ed Miliband at PMQs, demanding to know the Leader of the Opposition’s position. To the chagrin of those around him, Ed lost his cool, telling the House that “my position is no: we don’t want an in/out referendum”.

The Tory benches responded uproariously. Their opponent had just committed himself to denying the British people their democratic right to determine how the country is governed. The dividing lines were drawn: the Tories offer you a choice, Labour offer you a diktat.

Miliband’s spinners were out of the blocks immediately playing down their man’s words, but the damage was done. Ed is on the wrong side of history, falling hook line and sinker for the trap Cameron set him.

Iain Duncan Smith is rumoured to have described the PM’s speech as “bloody marvellous”. For skewering Ed Miliband so ruthlessly, it is hard not to agree.

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