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PM's delayed EU speech is an exercise in futility

David Cameron's speech on the EU reminds me of the celebrated lecture which Professor Lord Pinkrose is always just about to give but always, for one reason or another, prevented from delivering, in Olivia Manning's novel series Fortunes Of War.

For the Prime Minister's sake, I hope not, since, if I remember correctly, when he finally stood up to present his talk, Lord Pinkrose was promptly shot by a member of the audience. All the same, like Pinkrose's views on Byron, it seems likely that we will never actually get to hear Mr Cameron's views on the EU, whether he delivers his speech or not.

There is nothing very unusual about not knowing the Prime Minister's views on this issue, since there are swathes of policy on which we are all none the wiser about Mr Cameron's thinking – if I can dignify it with that description – even after he's talked about it.

There's the Big Society, of course, which is rather like Middle Earth or Westeros; we have a vague sense of what it might be like, but nobody is doing anything about physically taking us there. There's the constant talk of borrowing less, while we're borrowing more – more, in fact, than the last government managed in its entire time in office. There's the rhetoric about cutting spending, while public spending is actually going up. There's the localisation agenda, about which we used to hear quite a lot, and that has so far resulted only in elections for English police commissioners which had the lowest peacetime turnout ever (one polling station in Gwent returned no votes at all).

What Mr Cameron actually thinks, what he says and what he does are all quite separate notions. So it is with the EU. My suspicion is that, left to his own instincts, the Prime Minister would like the EU to be more democratic and to interfere less in British life, but not enough to do anything much about it, and certainly not enough to withdraw from it. But he would very much like his backbenchers and the British electorate to think the opposite.

Which is why, despite the fact that I think that the EU is incapable of being reformed and that taking the UK out of it would be the single most useful thing any politician could do, it doesn't much matter what is in Mr Cameron's speech, except in so far as it affects the electoral prospects of the Conservative Party.

Bluntly, that's because the only thing which is likely to make any difference to our relations with the rest of the EU is a straightforward in/out referendum on whether to invoke Article 50, which sets out how to go about leaving. (If you're interested, all you have to do is tell the European Council you're off, then you get two years to sort out the fine print.)

There's no question that such a referendum would be very popular with many Tory voters, and I suspect quite a few other voters, too. Many old-fashioned members of the Labour Party, especially on the Left, were strongly opposed to the EU, and the LibDems used to have a manifesto commitment to a referendum (so, of course, did the Tories, but I'll come to that in a minute).

There are even a few advocates of independence who question whether an independent Scotland would automatically want to apply to join the EU, as – contrary to the previously received wisdom in the SNP – it now seems likely it would have to, especially since the rules now require signing up to the euro. Funnily enough, most UKIP supporters are more interested in immigration and crime than in the EU, but I think we can be confident they'd like it too.

Who might it be unpopular with? Brussels bureaucrats, of course, though some European politicians might be glad to see the back of us. That leaves President Obama, Eddie Izzard, human rights lawyers, civil servants, citizens of other EU countries living here, some Britons resident abroad, the BBC and a large chunk of the business community. Of those, only the last one matters.

It matters to Mr Cameron because of his party's funding, naturally, but the fixed opinion of British industry matters to the rest of us as well. The single strongest card the europhile lobby has to play (since nobody could possibly mount a defence of the EU as a democratic, or an efficient, or an honest organisation) is that leaving the EU might endanger our trading relations with our largest trading partner. What's more, they argue, even if we continued to have membership of EFTA, as Norway and Switzerland do, it would leave us subject to the same rules, but give us no say in formulating them.

Though that argument is superficially plausible, it doesn't hold water, for several reasons. The first is that British exports to the EU are overestimated, because they include all goods passing through it, even if their final destination is elsewhere. The second is that British/EU trade is falling, while it is growing with other Anglophone countries. The third is that there's no reason to suppose our trade with the EU would be much affected by withdrawal anyway.

The point about being subject to the EU's rules to sell in those countries, after all, already applies to China and the USA, neither of which seems to find it an insuperable impediment. We'd gain the freedom not to have to apply the same rules domestically (as well as getting back our fishing rights and being able to avoid the insanity of European agricultural policy). Judging by our inability to achieve any of that from within the EU, we don't have all that much of a say in setting the rules in any case. What's more, the vast majority of the rules of trade for EFTA are not made in the EU, but set by organisations such as the World Bank, the ILO, or other agencies of the UN.

But it doesn't much matter what Mr Cameron's speech says because, as I mentioned earlier, he promised a referendum before. Though there were reasons for not delivering it (the Lisbon Treaty had already happened, and the LibDems demanded a moratorium on the EU as a condition of Coalition), it's like the boy who cried "Wolf!" No convinced eurosceptic will believe him. And since any referendum wouldn't be until after the next election, most people think Mr Cameron won't be the one who has to worry about it anyway.

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