David Cameron's gamble: Fault lines — in U.K. and abroad — harden ahead of EU votes
Referendum on staying in or leaving European Union could come as early as June
As parliamentary questions go, the one asked by MP Steve Baker earlier this month seemed unremarkable — until he said the words "polishing poo."
The MP was using the expression to criticize the British government on a matter related to the prickly question of whether the country should stay or leave the European Union.
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Even more unusual though is that Baker is government MP. A Tory. And the apparent "poo" in his question is a reform package Prime Minister David Cameron hammered out with EU officials — his best hope for countering such criticism.
The Conservatives have long had a healthy camp of Euroskeptics in their ranks. Cameron, too, has made lots of Euroskeptic noises, though now he's the all-but-declared standard bearer for the campaign to keep Britain inside the European Union.
A referendum on the question he had promised to assuage Euroskeptic Tory concerns could now be scheduled for as early as June, setting the stage for a possible though still unlikely divorce — or Brexit — that would threaten the EU project as a whole.
Cameron's plan of forcing the EU to reform itself, to bend to the U.K.'s will to persuade the British people to vote to stay, hasn't gone quite as planned.
Long before the draft reform deal he secured lands in front of EU leaders for consideration on Thursday, critics at home, including some major newspapers and a number of Tories, swatted it down as inadequate.
'Soft in the middle'
"This in-at-all costs deal looks funny, it smells funny, it might be superficially shiny on the outside, but poke it and it's soft in the middle," said Baker.
"Will my right honourable friend admit to the House that he has been reduced to polishing poo?"
It's going to be a pivotal national debate that will pit Cameron against a substantial number of fellow Conservatives.
This week, however, Cameron has even bigger self-made headaches to contend with before he turns his attention to the fault lines his latest referendum has hardened at home. The fault lines over the draft deal are hardening at the EU, too.
The leaders gathering in Brussels Thursday and Friday must approve the deal aimed at preventing a Brexit.
But by going to the EU first, Cameron has, astoundingly to some, put his and the U.K.'s future in the hands of the 27 other members of a fractious, multi-speed, volatile organization already strained over several fundamental issues.
And some members are balking at the proposed U.K. deal that would, among other things, allow it to put minor curbs on paying benefits to EU migrants and protect it from political integration.
"This is a critical moment," said Donald Tusk, head of the European Council who has been busy shuttling across Europe trying to sell the draft deal he struck with Cameron earlier this month.
"The risk of breakup is real because this process is indeed very fragile. Handle with care. What is broken cannot be mended."
The EU doesn't want to lose the U.K. and some leaders are working furiously to ensure they don't.
That could only mean compromise, and that means Cameron is likely to go home to face a referendum with a watered-down deal that will only galvanize those who already thought it was weak.
That was the risk from the start — even more risky than the referendum itself.
"My criticism is not necessarily with there being a referendum. My criticism is with there being a renegotiation and then a referendum," says John Springford, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform in London.
"The problem is that he was never going to get very much."
But Cameron took what he was given and embarked on his own European sales job this week.
And while Downing Street says the major European Parliament blocks are on board, Cameron was also bluntly told there were no guarantees the EU's parliament would vote in favour of the concessions either — and possibly not even before the referendum happens.
Sales job at home
Which brings us back to the critics at home — and the sales job Cameron will have to mount here, too.
"David Cameron is not going to deliver the fundamental change he promised the British people," Robert Oxley of the Vote Leave campaign says.
"We believe there needs to be fundamental change."
In the certain absence of that, members of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign are likely going to have to put Cameron's feeble deal aside and focus on why things are better under the status quo. That argument will be made in the face of continuing concerns about migrants — both EU economic migrants and the refugees coming from outside — and Europe's wobbly economy.
Those in favour of a Brexit are eager for the process to end. They want the debate to be distilled and to be had out loud.
"What Britain needs to decide," says Rory Broomfield of the Better Off Out campaign, "is whether or not it wants to govern itself, set its own regulations for its own economies, for its own people, rather than have other people do it from elsewhere."
On the pro-EU side, the brewing base argument seems to be preventing Britain from turning inward.
Support from Prince William?
No wonder there's been so much excitement among them over what sounded like pro-EU comments made by Prince William at the Foreign Office this week, much as Kensington Palace denies it.
"For centuries, Britain has been an outward looking nation," he said in a prepared speech.
He also said: "In an increasingly turbulent world, our ability to unite in common action with other nations is essential. It is the bedrock of our security and prosperity. "
The palace says the Duke of Cambridge didn't even say the word "Europe" once.
But, coincidence or not, his may still be the simplest — and strongest — statement this week in favour of staying.
With files from Tracy Seeley