David Cameron has a problem. On the one hand, he has an idea as to what he thinks Britain’s relationship with the European Union should look like. Ideally he’d like to negotiate that package with the rest of Europe before putting it to the British people in a referendum. As a plan it’s perfectly reasonable.
The problem is that no matter what deal he negotiates, the hard-line eurosceptics will never accept anything short of complete withdrawal, because the rest of the EU will never concede enough to make them happy. Instead, the hardliners will demand a straight In/Out referendum which, coincidentally, they may lose because they cannot tell the British electorate what actually happens if Britain does in fact vote No. Funnily enough, the use of the Alternative Vote would be ideal in this regard, giving the British people a number of options to vote on, but of course, Tory eurosceptics (But not UKIP ones, who supported AV) have a problem with requiring voters to be able to count.
Alternatively, Cameron may be tempted to go for the faux referendum: vote on a would-be package of changes that Britain would like to get from her EU partners, and then, with that mandate, go off to Brussels to seek them. The issue there is that the British, like the Irish, are sometimes prone to believing that they live in the only democracy in Europe, and so how they vote should be accepted without question by the rest of the EU. The rest of the EU will almost certainly beg to differ, in that whilst some concessions could almost certainly be conceded by the rest of the union, on the big stuff, like being bound by EU law, there will be no concessions. Especially not when one considers that non-EU states like Norway are required to adopt nearly 75% of EU regulations, despite not even being a member of the EU.
The reality of the problem facing Cameron is this: since Maastricht almost the entire mainstream of British politics has spoken of Europe as a problem to be contained and managed, to such an extent that the British media for the most part believes that if Britain does not have 100% zero sum victories in her dealings with the rest of Europe it’s either a humiliating defeat or an act of treachery. It is almost impossible to find a British political leader who does not make British membership of the EU sound like a chore, and so it is hardly surprising pro-remainers like Cameron can’t drum up support in the country to remain inside.
Cameron rode the eurosceptic tiger all the way to the leadership of the Tory party. He can hardly be surprised now if there is a serious danger of him ending up inside.