In one corner stands a body of MPs who represent a large swathe of the country, very likely even a clear majority, who want an informed debate and referendum on an issue that has remained controversial across two generations.
In the other corner rests a Prime Minister who rejects a referendum on EU membership, because he is not a radical by nature, because his coalition partners would bolt if he offered it, and because the default amongst Whitehall advisers has long been to pass blame onto successor governments.
It is an irresistible force and an unmoveable object. But there may just be a practical solution. The Government could in time be forced into a referendum anyway if Eurozone shudders lead to a new treaty, thanks to its own legislation. But until that happens, why not make the following statement – it’s not even a compromise requiring anyone to back down:
"We the Government recognise that the EU is an important issue of our day; that decisions at Brussels, Strasbourg, Frankfurt and elsewhere within its structures have a direct impact across a large swathe of our lives; and that it is healthy to have a debate on what the United Kingdom’s position should be in, or alongside, that system. To furnish that debate, what is therefore needed is an immediate, balanced, fair and ranging analysis of the pros and cons of Britain’s current terms of EU membership. This is what the Government is now going to set up."
Such a review would look at the social, democratic, strategic, and obviously in particular (but not exclusively) economic, costs and benefits of EU membership to the country. Participants would be nominated from both sides of and across the debate, with the option of the submission of minority reports alongside the final text to encourage a fair representation of the views expressed and analyses reached. This would be achieved within a set timeframe, falling well before the end of the Parliament, allowing parties time to draw policy conclusions from it. Such a review is technically possible: indeed, I have suggested a mechanism with five component parts to achieve it. But above all, it would have to be, and be seen to be, fair (that is to say, differently established from the way the ECHR commission was set up).
Who within the Cabinet could possibly object, without suggesting a prejudice that their point of view is doomed to lose in cold analysis? Who on the Opposition benches could oppose a report which would furnish the sinews of their own future policy as well? If the review found a deficit, such could only strengthen the hand of those seeking to repatriate powers, since they would be bolstered at the negotiating table both by the facts and by the unquestioned pressure from public and press to remedy an injustice. A massive deficit would so overwhelmingly endorse the need for swift and outright withdrawal that no corporate interests could hope to out-lobby it in any plebiscite. On the other hand, a fair analysis that found EU membership actually fell within the national interest would equally serve the country well by healing an evident political wound.
Mr Cameron’s position is clear. There will be no referendum. But there will equally be no end to increasingly electrical media stories coming out of the EU. The Prime Minister is short of time to find his Euro answers. Could this be a way to buy some months, cheaply, but at a fast-appreciating rate of return?