By Paul Goodman
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Were there an EU referendum today, Michael Gove would vote to leave. David Cameron would vote to stay. Conservative Cabinet members are divided: James Forsyth reminded Spectator readers this week that at least nine of them could back a British exit. The view of George Osborne ("Ozzy" to the Sun this morning: the Wizard of Ozzy?) is therefore crucial. The Chancellor and the Prime Minister have been joined at the hip since their joint takeover of the Conservative Party. For better or worse, Osborne is not only the party's political strategist but, please note, its only political strategist. No other Cabinet member, not even Michael Gove, and no Downing Street apparatchik – not even Andrew Cooper, who bears the title Director of Strategy; or Lynton Crosby, whose role is less to devise strategy than implement it – comes close.
Senior Treasury sources confirm that the Chancellor chose yesterday's words very carefully. “I very much hope that Britain remains a member of the EU,” he told Die Welt. “But in order that we can remain in the European Union, the EU must
change.” David Cameron recently said that leaving the EU is "imaginable". But Osborne is the most senior Minister to link Britain leaving to the repatriation of powers – for which "change" is, in part, a shorthand. This raises the question of whether the Chancellor was signalling that, at some point in the future, he is prepared to come out for Brexit. But Forsyth wrote that "Osborne thinks the Tories couldn’t win a referendum to leave", and the Chancellor is mindful of City support for EU membership. So what's going on?
Janan Ganesh, Osborne's biographer, tweeted yesterday that the Westminster Village is going to "spend the coming years over-analysing every remark by a senior minister about Europe". I think there is a lot in this, and that the Chancellor's words were no more than they seemed to be – in other words, a message to Angela Merkel: "Help Cameron out – or Britain's gone." But his intervention was a timely reminder of his status as a player. Last year, Osborne was reported to be pushing hard for a referendum manifesto commitment. It is very hard to imagine William Hague, who is far less hostile to the EU than once seemed to be the case, raising the prospect of Britain leaving. (Michael Burnett makes the case for staying in our Comment section today.)
And over the shoulder of the Chancellor who hasn't abandoned leadership ambitions looms the shadow of another man with more open hopes – Boris Johnson, who has had his own EU tergiversations during the last few months, but has settled (at least for the moment) on "Common Market and a referendum". All this is a reminder that hell will break loose for the Prime Minister if he doesn't get his coming big EU policy speech – now due on January 22 – right. A crunch issue for many Euro-sceptics is not whether it contains a commitment to a referendum after 2015, but (given the Lisbon referendum debacle) whether it contains one to legislate for in this Parliament – a fact of which the Chancellor will be grimly aware.
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