It’s fair to say that the Prime Minister’s EU renegotiation announcement received a withering response from the centre right press this morning:
- Daily Mail: ‘Is that it? After all the waiting, is this pathetic list of four requests the best David Cameron can come up with to defend Britain’s interests against the anti-democratic, statist, sclerotic, red-tape obsessed, viscerally corrupt EU? Reading his pusillanimous, oh-so-timid letter to the President of the European Council, you have to pinch yourself to remember that the Prime Minister is leader of Europe’s second largest and fastest growing economy, with all the clout this ought to give him in his renegotiations…Can any amount of play-acting conceal the truth that — as far as yesterday went anyway — he’s thrown in the towel before the bell has sounded for Round One?’
- The Sun: ‘We never held high hopes for David Cameron’s “demands” from the EU. But even we didn’t expect them to be quite so feeble or fall apart so fast. His most concrete — a four-year ban on new migrants claiming benefits — has already crumbled to a mere “proposal” he’d like Brussels to consider…He didn’t demand sovereignty for Britain over EU law. Merely permission to join “groups” of national parliaments who could club together to raise an objection. It was hopeless stuff….As an opening salvo in his fabled renegotiation this was as faint-hearted as it gets. Mr Cameron aimed low and missed.’
- Daily Telegraph: ‘…a fundamental change to Britain’s position in the EU is not anticipated and is not even being requested. Perhaps this was never a realistic hope; but in his Bloomberg speech three years ago in which he announced plans for a referendum, he foresaw a “new settlement” in Europe, one “in which… some powers can be returned to member states”. Little is now heard of repatriation of sovereignty. Mr Cameron is effectively preparing the ground for a referendum that invites voters either to support the status quo with some modifications, or to leave. That at least has the virtue of clarity.’
- Daily Express: ‘During his renegotiation, Mr Cameron will inevitably win some paltry concessions on a few issues. He will then attempt to present himself as a conquering hero who has secured real reform. This PR exercise is all a terrible waste of time and effort. We need to set Britain free by leaving the EU. An independent Britain would have full control of its borders, a national Parliament that sets all of its laws and the right to establish new relationships with other nations…It is simply impossible for David Cameron’s renegotiation farce to achieve the same sort of impact.’
- The Times: ‘Mr Cameron urges that national parliaments have greater powers. Yet the reality of his accommodation with the EU is that he stops short of demanding a veto for British MPs on European legislation, and relies on the important but symbolic issue of ending Britain’s commitment to “ever closer union”. Moreover, having initially proposed a ban on EU migrants from receiving benefits such as tax credits and social housing for four years after arrival, Mr Cameron has artfully recast this as an aim rather than a definite demand…The difficulty with the tone of Mr Cameron’s comments is that, having surprisingly declared that membership of the EU matters for Britain’s national security, he can hardly plausibly urge withdrawal if the EU member states reject his demands…Mr Cameron should be apprehensive that the pliability of his stance will be taken as weakness by voters as well as his negotiating partners.’
All in all, pretty damning stuff – The Times is the most positive, and even it thinks that he is watering down his demands and running the risk of looking weak. It’s hard to see how it could have gone down much worse.
The position of newspapers isn’t everything in a referendum, particularly while popular suspicion of authority soars and print sales sink, but they do still matter. These are the outlets that deliver news and opinion to large chunks of the electorate. If he can’t carry them with him, then he loses not only a platform to pitch to voters but also the hoped-for advantage of mood music – attempting to paint Leave voters as far beyond the mainstream will be far more difficult if the newspapers deliver a daily message that opposing the EU is a widespread and perfectly sensible belief (as indeed it is).
In short, Cameron has just handed the Outists a huge opportunity. His pitch has not only failed to win over the centre right press, it seems it has actively repelled some of them. The ball is now in Vote Leave’s court – can they succeed in winning hearts and minds on Fleet Street where he has failed?