Cameron's EU climbdown reveals a man tied in knots

European Union

At most world summits, cocooned in booths in the corner of a press conference, are the many fine professional linguists dedicated to the task of translating the thoughts of leading politicians to a grateful international press pack.

Related: David Cameron indicates Tory ministers face sack if they back EU exit

Sometimes things get mislaid in translation, such as when Jimmy Carter was reported as telling startled Poles he desired them carnally – when in truth he had meant to say he was pleased to be in Poland.

It is rare for a British prime minister to have got quite so badly lost in translation as David Cameron managed to at this G7 summit, and even more rare since he was talking to the British press, most of whom have a passable grasp of English.

Yet at a friendly 25-minute briefing on Sunday morning, it appears, if Cameron is to be believed, the entire British media pack and the prime minister were talking at cross purposes.

Cameron, it is suggested, believed he was saying simply that ministers would be sacked if they did not accept a collective line on the need for a renegotiation of Britain’s membership of the EU.

However, the press, and possibly some of Cameron’s staff, believed he was making clear he would impose a collective ministerial discipline when it comes to the referendum campaign itself, the first time he made this pledge since the election and the referendum becoming a reality, as opposed to a manifesto pledge.

Now sometimes the British press have been known, especially on an overseas visit, to apply what is known technically as top-spin to a story, and sometimes there can be one or two people in the press pack urging others to do the same.

On this occasion, the British press thought they were faithfully reporting what the prime minister had said, and no one in the press party demurred.

In a briefing then ranged quite widely, Cameron was two or three times pressed on the EU referendum issue, including by the BBC’s assistant political editor, Norman Smith.

Cameron made it clear the government would not be neutral and, when specifically asked if ministers would be sacked if they did not toe the line on a referendum, said they would have to follow the party manifesto.

It is of course possible Cameron, normally a fluent and clear interlocutor, thought he was discussing only the first of two stages in his European voyage, the period of renegotiation, as opposed to the response to the renegotiation, including the referendum.

But he made no mention of two such stages at his briefing, and it seems strange that he even thought there was any point asking whether collective ministerial discipline applied in the renegotiation period since no minister was ever likely to say they were opposed to the principle of renegotiation.

Stranger still the No 10 press operation normally quick to stamp on overnight incorrect stories, did not do so on Sunday night when many newspapers splashed his story about the referendum.

Indeed, James Wharton, the MP who had piloted the backbench referendum bill, was deputed to appear on Sky and the Today programme to back up the stories, and say collective ministerial responsibility is normal practice in a referendum. It is inconceivable that Wharton did a broadcast round without first checking this was the agreed Downing Street line.

Yet by mid-morning and the daily briefing of lobby reporters, the government had changed course, and said the British press had over-interpreted Cameron’s remarks.

It remains a mystery whether Cameron, understandably focused on climate change the Middle East and sanctions against Russia, only realised how he had been interpreted in the morning, and ordered a clarification. Alternatively, the word came back from London that his remarks were not playing well on the Tory benches, and it was time to beat a hasty if muddled retreat.

His current position gives the impression of a man tied in knots. Ministers must expect the renegotiations to end successfully and the government will have a view on the outcome of the talks, and not merely be a bystander, he said. Yet Cameron cannot say in principle whether he will impose ministerial discipline because he does not yet know the result of the talks.

The episode will have left Cameron frustrated. He was keen to show at the summit that “Britain was back” and, after the inwardness of the election campaign, he is willing to stride the world stage as America’s indispensable ally.

Instead he discovered just how preoccupying his European referendum campaign is going to be for the next year. If Barack Obama is looking to a country for advice, it is likely to be Germany, not Britain, a country with an identity crisis still deciding whether it is part of Europe or not.

Powered by article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor, for on Monday 8th June 2015 19.51 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010