Analysis: Cameron’s EU referendum dilemma

Up and down the country, those desperate for a referendum on the EU will be asking themselves: is David Cameron really going to let us have a vote on Europe?

Even by the prime minister's standards his article in the Sunday Telegraph is a confusing one. He's not saying 'no' to a referendum, but he's certainly not saying 'yes' now. A general election might work just as well, Cameron suggests.

A cynical response to prospects for a referendum could be forgiven. Those responding with scepticism are probably right.

Cameron is laying the groundwork for a renegotiation with Brussels politicians. He knows he must build up the political capital to make this process worthwhile by getting some sort of mandate from the British people.

How to get it? A referendum is one option, but – as both Cameron and William Hague have explained this morning – either an 'in' or 'out' result have real disadvantages for the UK. Legislation covering social issues, working time and home affairs are top of the PM's hitlist – but he doesn't want to sacrifice the enhanced diplomatic standing Britain enjoys as a member of the EU, or its ability to tweak the rules of the single market in the UK's favour, either.

A far better way of achieving the desired changes while minimising the downsides would be via a general election. This suits Cameron the statesman. It also suits Cameron the party leader.

His right-wing MPs are determined to begin the process of differentiation from the Liberal Democrats. This was begun with last month's speech on welfare. Now it continues with Cameron complaining about "whole swathes" of EU legislation needing to be scrapped. Lib Dems are pro-European. Although the coalition will continue to work together on their approach to the EU, Tory MPs will be delighted the "heart and soul" of their party is being reflected in government.

What about Cameron the prime minister – Cameron, the politician whose primary goal is to reflect the will of the British people? Among ordinary voters, on this particular issue, the impression right now is going to be one of further obfuscation. From today's media appearances it's not at all clear what Cameron, William Hague and co actually intend to do about Europe. They're talking about a referendum, but not actually agreeing to hold one.

British voters would be right to be sceptical. They haven't been given the chance to vote on the EU since 1973. Why should anything change now?

The prime minister did not get where he is today by ignoring voters. But he can afford to appear like a 'typical politician' right now. That's because the public only really matter when it comes to election time: and the Conservatives are on track to set out their stall long before the next polling day.

A major trial of strength on this issue will come in May 2014, when European parliamentary elections take place. The UK Independence party performed well in this year's local elections and will be looking to increase its number of MEPs. Their tussle with the Tories will be a fascinating one. Cameron's treaty veto will help the Conservatives, but resurfaced talk of a referendum will not help.

Between now and next year, then, Cameron needs to do something to change the state of play. Realistically he needs to come up with answers at his party's annual conference in October, when the Tory grassroots will be desperate for some ammunition to take with them on the doorsteps for the coming spring campaign.

The solution, oddly, lies in the coalition. It is holding an 'audit' of the ways the EU affects life in Britain, whether positively or negatively. Once that process is complete the Tory-Lib Dem administration will be able to present its list of demands to the EU, backed by the threat of a referendum if it does not get its way. Brussels power-brokers will quail before the determined will of the British.

Seems a bit far-fetched, doesn't it? The idea that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats would be able to agree on every aspect of European legislation is especially preposterous.

What is more likely to happen is a scenario where the two coalition parties come up with very different assessments of which bits of Britain's relationship should stay and which should go. Neither side loses out from this: they get to set out their own stalls and 'agree to disagree' – a phrase we'll be hearing more and more of as the 2015 general election approaches.

Cameron must tread carefully as he negotiates the nightmarish quagmire that is the European Union question. EU leaders, coalition colleagues, party members and the people he governs all want slightly different things: today is just the latest development in a long struggle to keep them all happy. Not as easy as it appears, is it?