When David Cameron promised the British people a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, there were no caveats, no footnotes, no time limits. He offered a "cast-iron guarantee", and to the readers of the Sun, no less: there would be a vote on Lisbon.
Well, nothing about Lisbon, for starters; and precious little about the European constitution it essentially embodies either. And nothing about the practicality of Cameron's original policy either. But, if you listen to David Cameron's more loyal followers, for Cameron himself has yet to say anything, that's just what we're supposed to believe. His policy – promising a referendum – was loyally defended, up until the moment it was reneged upon, as excellent. But now it's a dud. Unworkable, unrealistic, pointless – these are all the words being used by would-be candidates and friendly journalists of the just-abandoned promise. But this really is the Tory party, or at least its more nakedly careerist element, at its "four legs good, two legs better" worst.
If the policy of holding out a post-ratification referendum to the voters was unworkable, it was unworkable last week, last month and last year. Is David Cameron really so inept at constructing policy that he's only just realised this?
However, it needs to be repeated that the claim, made necessarily off-the-record by shamefaced party spinners, that Cameron said anything other than what he did – "If I become PM, a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations" – is absurd. No one can honestly claim that Cameron offered a conditional or time-limited pledge, but merely forgot (and continued to forget for more than year) to set out those hidden conditions and unmentioned timescales. Cameron broke his word.
Each step in Cameron's approach towards the EU has been one of shameless contempt for the Eurosceptics who have loyally backed him in a way William Hague could have only dreamt that Ken Clarke, Chris Patten or Michael Heseltine might have behaved. Four years passed before the straightforward, unanswerable, if entirely cosmetic departure from the EPP was effected. One year has been taken to break his "cast-iron guarantee" of a referendum on Lisbon, and now David Cameron holds the prospect that he'll demand, and get, powers back from Brussels. Who does he seriously expect to believe him?
Were David Cameron to fight to repatriate powers lost to Brussels, how can we explain that he won't fight to repatriate those lost at Lisbon? If he concedes that Lisbon is an unwinnable fight, what precisely does he think can be won? And if he cares to spell that out, why exactly will whatever threats or coercive measures he presumably proposes to employ to get those powers back be of no avail in getting back what has been lost at Lisbon?
David Cameron's contempt for Eurosceptics, as dupes who can be strung along until he's safely in Downing Street is unambiguous, honest and consistent – in short, everything his European policy is not. More fool us if we let him mislead us again.