Any good Conservative recognises a bias towards the status quo; one should need more reason to change things than to keep them the same. This natural, healthy tendency has been seen in the results of referendum around the world, on all kinds of topics. We saw it in the UK in the AV referendum. We saw it, also in the EEC referendum of 1975. Opinion poll leads for change evaporated under the pressure of the argument against change.
Given this, in any referendum in which one of the options could potentially be seen as involving less change and one more, if you favour the more-change option, the one thing you definitely do not want to argue, if you can possibly avoid it, is that the less-change option is a no-change option.
For example, if there were to be a referendum on our status within the EU within the next few years, with perhaps two or three options, ranging from less change to more, if you favour one of the more-change options, you would be crazy to concede that the least-change option is a no-change option. That will be what your opponents, who favour as little change as possible, want to argue. Doing their work for them is potty.
Consequently, if someone comes along trying to change the terms of the debate on the EU (choosing someone at random, let's say…me), saying any referendum in the future will not be a choice between "in" and "out", but only between different variants of "out", then if you would favour "out" in an "in/out" referendum, the electorally smart thing to do would be to say "Absolutely. That's totally correct. There isn't any option of keeping things the same – no conservative status quo. The right question isn't about how things might stay the same, but only how they'll change." If, on the other hand, your ambition would be to achieve an "in" vote in an "in/out" referendum so that you'll carry on having things to complain about or because you actually believe in "staying in", then of course the smart thing to do is to say: "No. That's not true. Unless we vote "out" then everything will carry on much as it is. You workers will carry on in much the same jobs. Travel will be much the same. Business regulation and taxes will be fairly similar to now. Britain's role in the world will be the same. If we vote "in" then things will cary on. It's only if we vote "out" that your lives will be over-turned, that we will be taking a gamble on who-knows-what future, that we might change Britain's role in the world, that our prosperity might rise but also might fall."
Now it doesn't surprise me that get-out-ers haven't the foggiest idea how to frame their arguments in the best way to win a referendum, and so when I try to re-frame the debate in a way that would be helpful to their cause, it's they who attack me most and most consistently. That's no surprise at all. It's barely even a disappointment. But it is, perhaps, telling as to why they've been so unsuccessful these past 37 years.
It's also silly, because although what I say is a spin on things – after all, we shall probably still have an EU membership card with the words "in" on it at the time of the referendum – it is, nonetheless, an illuminating and truthful spin. And I don't think get-out-ers are grasping what I'm saying at all. There are those that have started saying "Britain has already, to all intents and purposes, left the EU". That's not what I'm saying – and it also isn't true. I'm saying that once the EU federation is in place our status even as EU members will change profoundly – indeed change so much that describing us as "in" or "out" will be mere semantics, since our status then as "ins" will be almost identical to the current status of Norway as an "out" – contributing to the EU budget (as Norway does); not being involved in most of the EU's state-building projects (as Norway isn't); being subject to Single Market rules even though one plays no material role in setting them (as Norway is).
So my point is concrete, not vague. I'm saying precisely in what sense I mean we will be effectively "out".
Others seem to imagine I'm saying that since we are going to be "out" already, in a Norway sense, there isn't any need to seek any more reform of our EU position. Where they get that idea from I can't begin to imagine. You think I reckon a Norwegian-style "membership-that-isn't" of the EU is a good idea??
No! What I'm saying is that I don't want the discussion to be about whether we should or should not leave the EU, and I don't want the debate and choices in the referendum to be about whether we leave or do not leave the EU. I want a totally different, and much more productive and forwards-looking debate, instead. I want the debate to be: "What should Britain's next phase of geo-political / deep trading relationships be, given that there is no possibility of continuing with the ones we've had?"
The right debate about the EU is not "Should we stay or should we leave?" The right debate is: "Since our membership of the EU is over, should we go for A alternative to EU membership or B alternative to EU membership?"
If get-out-ers insist on framing the debate as "Should we stay, continuing much as we have done, or should we change everything?" there is a good chance they will lose, and that Britain will lose the chance to choose some fruitful alternative. I appeal to you: Frame it my way! Say: "Britain's membership of the EU is, in the terms you have been used to it, about to be over. Even staying as formally an "in" would really mean being out, but being out in a particularly unattractive way. Here is a better way to be out." Then tell us what that better way to be out is going to be.