That's the trouble with hoping for the messiah for a long time – when people say he's turned up you condemn them for blasphemy.
I've written a number of blogs and newspaper articles recently, noting that with the advent of the EU Federation a referendum on Britain's EU "membership" is inevitable and that even were such a referendum to vote for an "in" our status within the EU would be what used to be called the "Norway option" for leaving. Regardless of its precise wording, the upcoming referendum on our EU membership can only be a choice between "out" and "out-er".
In response to these articles I've receiving an avalanche of comments and letters declaring me a mouthpiece of Europhilia, saying there is no possibility David Cameron will ever agree to a referendum, saying that the whole "LibLabCon" establishment will never allow Britain to leave the EU. And it's not just me. David Cameron says he believes that the British will need to give their "fresh consent" to our continued membership of the EU once the EU federation comes, and that a referendum is the cleanest way to deliver that. Conservative Chairman Grant Shapps has today declared that such a referendum could be held within a year of the next General Election. Sources close to Cameron have let it be known, via James Forsyth, that such a referendum would follow an attempt to renegotiate our position in the EU and that the options would be either acceptance of that renegotiated package or departure from the EU.
And in response to these statements get-out-ers in the press and elsewhere have declared that any such referendum would only be "in-in", that Cameron is lying, that no-one should be deceived by these mendacious Tories.
Given the abject failure of Cameron's administration to attempt even the tiniest repatriation of anything when they had their best chance in 2010, and given the capitulation over the "veto"-that-wasn't in December 2011, I can understand scepticism over the government's intentions. But what get-out-ers aren't grasping – and are in danger of looking ridiculous for not grasping – is that it isn't about what Cameron wants or doesn't want. There will be a referendum on our EU Membership even if Ed Miliband wins the next General Election. And even if there weren't, we would still be out of the EU regardless of whether we still officially held an EU membership card. Our EU membership, in the terms we have understood it up to now, is over. Get-out-ers seem to have been even slower to grasp that and its implications than have the Cameroons (who are still pitifully behind the play).
We are leaving the EU, one way or another. That isn't in doubt; it isn't the issue; and it's barely worth debating. Given that I didn't want us to leave, I might occasionally indulge in some recriminations over whose fault it is that we're leaving, but that's not the interesting question.
The question that Cameron should be offering some leadership on – and is failing, so far, to do – and the question get-out-ers should be debating is "What do we do next?" And get-out-ers are precisely nowhere on that.
Since the mid-1990s I've kept up with a modest volume of get-outer literature, speaker meetings and conferences, just to see what folk were saying. I've never been very impressed. It wasn't that there was no get-out-er case to be made; it was merely that (with a few honourable exceptions) those that self-identified as get-out-ers rarely appeared to know what the strongest form of the get-out-er case really was. It used to be the case that the proper Eurosceptic literature – not the get-outers, but the renegotiationists – had a far more persuasive and practical and well-thought-through case to make, and that was where I raised my own standard (sadly, now, in tatters).
At Party Conference this year, since in the past few months it has become inevitable that we shall leave the EU – the rengotiationist cause now being bankrupt with the abject failures of late 2010 to early 2012 - I thought I'd try a few more get-out-er meetings than normal. In particular, I was interested in what get-out-ers might have to say about what we might do instead of the EU. After all, since they're the ones that wanted us to leave for so long, I thought they might be the ones to tell us what follows. I was aware that they had never got very far with that in the past, but I hoped that might be because departure had always seemed such a distant project to them.
I was sadly disappointed. Everything was still geared around the assumption that departure from the EU was still some long-distance near-unattainable goal. Relationships with the Commonwealth weren't conceived as a genuine alternative to the EU, but instead we were implored to encourage policymakers to gradually build up this or that trade line with Commonwealth partners, so as gradually to wean the British establishment off its dependence on the EU and to imagine that one day we might leave. That is to say, alternatives to the EU weren't set up as things we might do yet – rather, they were just devices to assist in the argument that we should leave. I saw absolutely no grasp of the fact that we are actually going to leave within the next few years – perhaps as soon as the middle of the next Parliament – and hence urgently require some vision of what we do then.
There are those that conceive of departure from the EU as a kind of withdrawal from international affairs. We would simply trade with everyone on an equal footing, or seek our own individual trade agreements with this or that partner on a one-to-one basis, a la Switzerland or New Zealand. OK – that's at least a story. There's no way on earth Britain's going to go for that. But it is at least a story. I want to know what other stories you've got!
We're leaving. There is no point in debating whether we should leave or stay, because there's no such thing as "staying" in the EU, in the terms we've meant that concept up to now – the EU simply won't exist in those terms after about 2015. Get that. Comprehend it. Embrace it. Then come up with some ideas of what we should do instead.
Finally, a post-script. I'm a bit worried about what the future holds for certain of the get-out-ers I encounter or who write letters about or comment on my stuff. They appear to have spent the past 35 years making their central life's project complaining about the EU and saying we should leave. Once we actually do leave, I fear they will be existentially challenged. What will there be for them to complain about then? What letters left to write; what complaints to their MP left to make? Sic transit gloria mundi.