By Paul Goodman
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A man who has worked closely with David Cameron at the highest levels of the Conservative Party has told a private meeting: "We've got all sorts of dark arts". Readers will grasp at once that I am not referring to Tim Collins, the former Shadow Cabinet Minister, who is embroiled in the great Bell Pottinger lobbying controversy – or to reported claims that the firm has a team which can "drown" out negative coverage, "sorts" negative Wikipedia coverage of clients, and keeps google-friendly blogs apparently from a third party.
I am of course thinking of Cameron's Downing Street and tomorrow's Euro-summit. Obviously, Number 10's media team doesn't keep google-friendly blogs or sort negative Wikipedia coverage (at least, if it tries to, it's not been very successful to date). But management expectation – or spin if you prefer – is a dark art, and there is plenty of it going on. The Guardian reports this morning that the Prime Minister will "stop short of demanding the repatriation of social and employment laws".
Ken Clarke says in the Financial Times is of the same mind. The Guardian concludes that the Prime Minister is "planning to face down Tory Eurosceptics". In one sense, this is true: the package that Cameron will return with won't contain a large-scale repatriation of powers. In another, it reflects the dark art of management expectation. The game is familiar. Go to a summit under-promising. Return from it over-delivering – or at least claiming to. The Prime Minister is bound to come back with some meat to toss to the Euro-sceptics.
It may be a pledge on the EU budget. It may be "progress on the single market". It may be movement on the regionalisation of fishing policy. It may well not be anything to do with the Working Time Directive – but then again, it may, since the Coalition Agreement commits the Government to "working to limit" its application. Hang on a moment, I hear you cry: all this isn't meat – it's ersatz. And you're right, if the proper repatriation of powers is the standard. But to change the figure of speech, Ministers returning from summits always produce rabbits out of hats.
Those rabbits may be mangy, ailing, or even dead – but this scarcely matters, at least from the point of view of the spinners. Will the ploy work? Bill Cash, Douglas Carswell, and Stewart Jackson are insistent that there must be a referendum on any outcome, and other Conservative MPs will doubtless join them during the next few days. But it's worth noting that leading figures in the Fresh Start Group are keeping their power dry. Chris Heaton-Harris wrote a strong piece in the Telegraph recently urging an EU law withdrawal mechanism in exchange for agreement.
However, Andrea Leadsom is quoted in the Guardian as saying that she hopes to see "a mark in the sand that Britain will want to see some adjustments to protect British interests. It does not need to be tub-thumping, just a mark in the sand". The majority of Conservative MPs are neither happy with the EU status nor supporters of withdrawal (though backing for the latter option is rising in my view). The best course each one can take during the next few days is to listen not to the spin but to the voice that asks: on Europe, how far should I go?