Week in Review: The interminable wait for a predictable speech

To EU or not to EU? We might never know the answer.
To EU or not to EU? We might never know the answer.
Ian Dunt By

We spent all week waiting for Cameron's speech and then it never happened. It's just not fair. No-one's looking forward to the speech, of course. Anything so excessively pre-hyped can only disappoint. And we broadly already know what's in it (renegotiation, then referendum).  It's just that the longer he takes to make it, the more we have to hear everyone else tell him what should be in it.

There's barely been any other news all week.  Cameron himself popped up early on and spoke at length about the speech while simultaneously insisting he could not divulge any details. Bear in mind Downing Street's been promoting it for months now, so only being offered a glimpse of leg was frustrating.

Nick Clegg got in on the act too, as did Vince Cable. Soon enough Miliband popped up and proved once again why his handlers must never, ever allow him to go on the Today programme. The presenters clearly constitute a special torment, because he is quite unable to pursue a steady line of argument or present a coherent position while on the show. He seemed to oppose Cameron's speech announcing a referendum but would not divulge whether he would oppose the referendum itself. His sleight of hand over policy – that he will say what he would do in government now but not what he will do in government if he is elected – is becoming increasingly irritating. 

None of which was reflected in his PMQs performance, which was commanding, clever and mischievous. The Labour leader rang rings around Cameron and raised an interesting thought experiment: What will be least popular with voters? Opposing an EU referendum or being weak in the face of your backbenchers? Only time will tell. Or it might, if we had any idea what Miliband will do with his European policy.

By Thursday night Cameron was preparing to travel to Holland in order to deliver his speech early Friday. For some reason, British PMs always have to do game-changing European speech away from home, as if to show their confidence in enemy territory. He never made it. A hostage situation in Algeria involving British citizens had become increasingly serious and the PM wisely cancelled the speech. There is an enjoyable subplot to this rather morbid turn of events which we will come to shortly.

The Algeria attack was reportedly conducted in revenge for French bombing strikes in Mali, although that's questionable. It would have taken weeks to prepare and the French operation only just started. Cameron authorised assistance at the start of the week when he sent two planes – one of which promptly broke down, of course – to help out. France has wide support for the operation, not just among sympathetic nations, but in most of the press and across the political divide. However, some critics suggested the assistance put Britain in danger and events at the end of the week arguably substantiated that view. Those who warned of mission creep also felt vindicated. The French started the week saying they wouldn't put boots on the ground and they ended it... well, you can guess the rest. It's the same every time.

What was the enjoyable subplot? Well, many members of the British press went to the Netherlands on Thursday afternoon in advance of the speech, before they found out it was cancelled. And then the snow came in.

One prominent lobby journalist's Twitter feed from Friday afternoon read like this:

"i can report we are closing on our 2nd EU capital of the day by rail. one more to go and home."

"fear not; like any excellently planned recovery operation, we have a Plan C and a Plan D."

"dramatic update: assets say we are 48 mins away from missing last Eurostar to Blighty today.""Can we get thru Bruxelles Midi, past passport control and onto the Eurostar in 23 minutes?"

"Update: the entirety of the travelling lobby missed the 15.56 Eurostar to London - by 2 minutes. Every other train booked out."

"It's a 2 hour, 24 minute drive from Brussels to Calais. Dusting down Plan C."

And then, rather disappointingly: "Intense joy: kind Eurostar are coupling a 2nd train onto the 16:56 to London, seats for everyone. We're coming home."


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