The EU deal is David Cameron's biggest ever gamble

David Cameron is asking himself the question we’ve all considered after buying a car, or a house. Did I get a good deal?

The Prime Minister came away from Brussels with a lot of the things he’d asked for — but his critics will say he didn’t ask for all that much.

To them, it’s a bit like winning a £50 discount on a £15,000 car — you could have got so much more.

But there are significant achievements in the Prime Minister’s agreement. He’s got his emergency brake on in-work benefits for EU migrants, and restrictions on child benefit too.

The price to keep Britain inside the EU was for the other 27 countries to cement its position as a semi-detached member state, and they’ve decided to pay that.

But this really is just the beginning.

Soon, he’ll announce the referendum on our EU membership will be on June 23rd, and he’ll find out exactly how many members of his Cabinet will oppose him during the campaign.

The real price of a vote to leave

Mr Cameron has insisted he won’t resign if he loses the referendum. But we all know that’s not true.

To stake your reputation on a vote, and lose, taking Britain out of the EU, is a career-ending moment.

So those members of his Cabinet who plan to campaign to leave will do so knowing they are, in effect, also campaigning to remove David Cameron as Prime Minister.

They’ll stand on opposite sides of the EU campaign, then sit together around the Cabinet table.

And among those rejecting the Prime Minister’s deal will be some of his oldest friends and colleagues, like Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove.

Mr Gove has been wrestling with this for months, but has clearly decided to follow his conscience.

Now we wait to see if Boris Johnson, emboldened by the Justice Secretary’s move, follows suit. Boris doesn’t make a move like this lightly, and if he jumps he’s calculated it’s worth the risk of opposing Mr Cameron to win the loyalty of anti-Europe Tory MPs ahead of the leadership election — whenever it comes.

So will Mr Cameron pull off his latest, and biggest, gamble? Past experience suggests when in doubt, voters tend to opt for the status quo.

But the polls are tightening, there is significant antipathy to the very concept of the EU, and a substantial chunk of the population has already decided to vote to leave, come what may.

The Prime Minister’s challenge is to encourage the rest, if not to love the EU, then at least to tolerate it, and fear life outside its borders.

A lesson for Labour

In 1975, most Conservatives supported staying in Europe. Now, a huge chunk of Tory MPs are determined we should leave.

They could join those Cabinet members campaigning against their own party leader. And that could tear the Conservative Party apart.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, there’s every chance the Tories could fall into the same divisive fighting that Europe prompted in the 1990s.

That’s an opportunity for Labour, but one it’s probably not in a position to exploit. Jeremy Corbyn’s party is so busy fighting itself, it may not find the time to take advantage of similar ructions in the Conservatives.

David Cameron’s giant game of Deal or No Deal, and what follows, may be the most significant moment of this parliament. Right now, it’s just not terribly clear what follows.


There'll be more discussion of the EU deal, along with a few other things, in the latest episode of the Party Games podcast. You can subscribe and listen to past episodes here.