A small step toward independence?
The nerf here is squishy indeed. Cameron has two years before the next election -- why not negotiate now and run for re-election in 2015 on the basis of recovered national sovereignty (something which would be popular in Britain)? Voters remember an earlier half-promise of a referendum on the EU by Cameron's Conservative party, a referendum which it never delivered; they're well aware that by 2017 it will be all too easy for a safely re-elected Cameron to say that conditions have changed and perhaps it would not be wise to er um blah blah blah.
It's still a significant move, though, not so much for what it says about future government action as about the current state of politics. In the last election, the Conservatives still got far fewer votes than the opposing Labour party, despite the latter's deep unpopularity; the Conservatives now rule only due to a shaky coalition with the small, annoying Liberal Democrat party. Since that election, the Conservatives' austerity policies have strangled the economic recovery that was beginning under Labour. Cameron needs a "game change" to have much hope of winning in 2015. The EU is unpopular in Britain and the new UK Independence Party (UKIP) has been siphoning away Conservative voters in polls and local elections; an anti-EU move was the obvious option to be that "game change" -- especially with some in the Labour party hinting at a referendum promise of their own, which would have fatally outflanked Cameron..
So why such a feeble effort? Cameron's heart is not in it. Like almost all European mainstream-party politicians, he's a pro-EU true believer. He may well actually favor some recovery of sovereign powers from the EU, but has always been reluctant to even talk about a referendum, and would recoil from the idea of leaving the EU. Everyone in Britain knows these things. The UKIP's boisterous and somewhat Barney-Frank-like leader, Nigel Farage, is firmly unimpressed.
Cameron may, however, have started something he cannot control. One must never under-estimate the depths of the EU oligarchs' arrogance. Their reaction is the best evidence that there's more here than mere fluff. They've already swatted down his reluctant ploy, declaring that "Europe à la carte is not an option". Rather than go along with his game of using anti-EU rhetoric to get re-elected and then (probably) letting the whole thing get quietly watered down, they've loudly and firmly painted him into a corner. Why? The key, I think, is in this remark by "a senior EU politician":
A list of demands would have been very negative. There's a risk we'll shut the door in his face. It's not possible to have member states sending in lists [of demands]. Then you'll have the Swedes, the Dutch, and the Czechs doing the same. That will leave you not with a union, but with a kind of regional alliance. Anyone doing that will get short shrift.
That's what they're really afraid of. The EU is unpopular across much of Europe, for varying reasons, but smaller countries are reluctant to challenge the thuggish oligarchy. A first move by a large country like Britain could embolden them and start the whole thing unraveling. This politician was praising Cameron for not making specific demands yet, but any effort at "negotiation" will require that. That's what the oligarchs are determined to prevent, and that's why, rhetorically, they are "shutting the door in his face" already, or at least demanding that he stop even trying to open it.
Once Cameron realizes that his timidity is not winning him any Brownie points in Brussels, and once his voters deconstruct how little his promises, as presently stated, are worth, he'll face a choice -- cave to the EU and drop the whole thing, or push more clearly for recovering sovereignty. The latter option has the merit of improving his chances of winning the next election. And his words may already be resonating beyond Britain. Germany's biggest tabloid, Bild, is cheering Cameron for standing up to those who think that "the European project is too important for democratic participation" or that "the rest of the world knows better what the British need".
It's a small step. But when the snow is already so unsettled, even a nerf grenade just might, eventually, start an avalanche.