Cameron on the brink of disaster

Published by The Mail on Sunday (21st February, 2016)

During those days when David Cameron soared high in the polls as Opposition Leader, he was asked about his success in ending Tory divisions on Europe. ‘Of course, it’s an important issue but it shouldn’t be the issue that dominates our party to the exclusion of everything else,’ he replied.

How times change. For the next four months, Britain’s place in Europe will be the single subject dominating British politics and dislocating our stability in the run-up to the referendum in June.

This is the biggest question our nation faces for a generation. It threatens not just to tear apart the Tories, but to reshape both our country and our continent.

And for Mr Cameron, who infamously once insisted that Tories should stop banging on about Europe, the fight has become a personal crusade.

Since giving that interview in 2008, this pragmatic politician has persistently confounded his critics by winning power at two General Elections and notching up two referendum victories. Today, he bestrides British politics, his enemies on both sides vanquished and in disarray.

But as he prepares for his final tussle with the electorate, he knows this is the vote that will determine his place in history.

If he wins again, he can spend his remaining days in Downing Street focusing on a remarkable legacy, finessing his vision of compassionate conservatism and ensuring that his party – if it survives this divisive campaign – commands the political landscape.

If he loses, his political career will crash and almost certainly end this summer in self-inflicted disaster. He would go down in history as the man who provoked British withdrawal from Europe – and, possibly, also the consequent independence of Scotland.

The stakes could not be higher for this man who hides his fierce ambition and highly competitive character behind a genial exterior.

His battle began well. After a difficult summit in Brussels, he spoke strongly about his precious reform deal and – as ever on the big occasions – looked serious and self-assured. He repeated this trick yesterday, talking about his desire for a ‘safer, stronger’ Britain from the Downing Street podium.

What a contrast with those images of two egotistical extremists – Ukip’s Nigel Farage and hard-left former MP George Galloway – bonding at a Brexit rally on Friday night. This event underlined how ‘Out’ camp leaders are largely a disparate rabble of protest politicians who are trapped in the past.

The desertion of Michael Gove to their side is, however, both a personal and political blow for the Prime Minister. Their families are close friends, Gove has long been a loyal ally and the thoughtful Justice Secretary is rightly respected across the Conservative Party.

His statement yesterday was typically eloquent. Yet as one of Cameron’s closest aides cruelly told me: ‘Michael is not well known to most voters – and those that do know him don’t like him.’

This contrasts with London Mayor Boris Johnson, who has done himself few favours with his flirtations on Brexit but has a rare ability to connect with voters. But keeping Home Secretary Theresa May on board was probably most important for the Prime Minister, given her quiet authority that resonates with Middle England.

As so often, Mr Cameron’s private views reflect many in his country: sceptical about Brussels and its mania for regulation, while ultimately believing Britain is better off arguing inside the club than giving up any say on EU rules that hold back our businesses.

For all the talk of self-determination, this would still be true if Britain votes to leave. Some point to Norway, yet though twice voting to reject EU membership it is the tenth biggest contributor to Brussels and has more migrants per capita from EU countries than Britain.

As Mr Cameron said on Friday night: ‘We should be suspicious of those who claim leaving Europe is an automatic fast track to a land of milk and honey.’

The Prime Minister and his allies are confident of success. The most trusted polls show a clear majority to stay in, while they plan to target moderate-minded Britons whose instincts are sceptical of Europe but whose heads tell them risks of departure are too high.

These people are largely uninterested in the debate, and face a campaign that will be boring and brash, filled with bluster and hype as one camp sows fear and the other offers a phoney vision of independence.

Mr Cameron is arguably the most secure prime minister for half a century, having seen off rivals to left and right. Yet these are turbulent times. The refugee crisis gets worse, security fears are growing, Schengen is crumbling, the Middle East is in meltdown, and Europe often seems paralysed in response.

This is the parlous backdrop as Mr Cameron seeks to confound critics again in June. He stands on the edge of an electoral precipice, exquisitely poised between historic triumph and tragic failure.

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