by Mark Stockwell
When we think of the great speeches in recent history, one perhaps stands out above all others: Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial in March 1963. Nearly fifty years later, Barack Obama consciously channelled the spirit of that magnificent, spine-tingling oration in Monday’s inaugural address. It is, if you like, the gold standard by which major speeches are measured.
In his big set-piece on Europe on Wednesday, David Cameron seems instead to have sought inspiration from the man after whom MLK was named – the 16th-century German monk, Martin Luther, whose ideas and writings provided the theological underpinning of the Reformation.
Cameron must surely have had Luther in mind when he talked of Europe having “experience of heretics who turned out to have a point.” It is an allusion he must have hoped would not be lost on the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, herself the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Judging from her response to the speech, indicating that she was open to negotiating “a fair compromise”, these hopes have not been entirely in vain.
Quite how this reference was greeted in some of the other chancelleries of Europe – in staunchly Catholic Italy, Spain, France or Poland, for example – is another matter. Other European leaders have been rather less complimentary in their responses, with the French in particular indulging in the sort of wryly-amused sneering in which they can legitimately claim to be world leaders.
Presumably Cameron feels this is relatively unimportant: the EU’s centre of gravity has shifted emphatically to Berlin as the eurozone crisis has unfolded. The prime minister no doubt believes it is primarily there, rather than Paris or Brussels, that the fate of his renegotiation strategy will be decided.
Even in Germany, though, not everyone seems to have shared Merkel’s relatively benign disposition. Her foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle, spelled out in no uncertain terms that, “cherry-picking is not an option.” Nobody in No. 10 can be under any illusions that our European partners will do anything other than make life difficult for the prime minister.
Anticipating this reaction from his continental counterparts, the prime minister steered clear of any firm commitments as to what powers he might try to win back. No red lines were offered and while he forcefully promised to campaign for a yes vote in the event of a successful negotiation, he conspicuously avoided committing himself as to what success looks like, and what he would do if it doesn’t deliver what he wants.
Where Luther had 95 theses, Cameron had just five broad-brush principles for EU reform. Luther is said to have nailed his theses to the door of the church at Wittenberg. It would be rather harder to pin down any specifics in Cameron’s speech.
So in terms of the policy it outlined, the speech could certainly be criticised on a number of levels. But that would rather miss the point.
The promise of renegotiation and a referendum is aimed not at securing the best possible deal for Britain within the EU, or even at reforming the EU to improve the way it works for all its member states. None of those considerations come into play in earnest unless Cameron can secure a majority at the next election. And to achieve that, he needs to put the issue to bed within his own party.
As I argued in an earlier piece, Cameron’s political instincts scream at him to leave the whole business of the EU well alone. He knows – and his chancellor and foreign secretary know perhaps even better – that even if the party’s policy on Europe is in tune with public opinion, the sight of Tory MPs coming over all peculiar about “Brussels” has the power to hurt the party in the only place that counts: marginal seats in a general election.
That’s why Cameron’s stated ambition when he was elected as Conservative leader, was that the party should “stop banging on about Europe all the time.” To the extent Cameron has a sincerely and deeply held policy on Europe, that is it.
Some have portrayed Cameron’s speech as a retreat from that position. In fact it is an attempt to reassert it, albeit with a timebomb ticking underneath it in the event he finds himself still in No. 10 come May 2015.
In the medium term – which means up to and including the next general election – the success or otherwise of the speech will be measured not by what, if any, powers the UK wins back from Brussels further down the line. That can wait.
It will be judged by the extent to which Cameron is able to persuade his party to unite around the promise of a referendum and not to panic every time an opinion poll puts UKIP in double figures.
For the time being, Cameron can bask in the plaudits being heaped on him by his backbenchers and the eurosceptic media. But how long will it last?
Mark Stockwell is a former adviser to the Conservative party. He now works in public affairs