Don’t expect David Cameron to play nice as he battles for his place in history
Published by The Daily Telegraph (17th February, 2016)
So here we go: the battle of Britain’s place in Europe is about to begin. The Prime Minister is frantically working the phones as he finalises his fig leaf deal of European reforms. Then comes an emergency cabinet meeting on Friday evening, followed by the end of collective responsibility as sceptical ministers break ranks to decry membership and the nation’s date with destiny is finally revealed.
This is a pivotal moment for David Cameron. On June 23 – or whichever date is confirmed this weekend – he will face the electorate for his third referendum in five years. This latest display of direct democracy will shape both our country and continent. It will also determine his place in history. If he triumphs, he can spend the next couple of years before standing down polishing a remarkable legacy and concentrating on issues that concern him. If he loses, he will be driven from Downing Street in days.
From the start Mr Cameron has confounded his many critics. He has been written off with weary regularity as a chancer and a lightweight, a public relations man with few principles and fuzzy views. But as he fires the starting gun on this four-month referendum campaign, the smooth pragmatist bestrides British politics and is arguably the most secure prime minister for half a century. He has reshaped his party, routed internal foes, seen off Ukip, helped the Liberal Democrats disappear and watched Labour dissolve into disarray. This cannot all be down to good fortune.
And though pollsters are all over the place, the omens remain in Mr Cameron’s favour too. While online surveys indicate a majority for leaving, telephone polls show strongly for staying. The best guide was last year’s four-month British Election Study, which found a 22-point majority to remain in Europe. Clearly the public mood has moved since then with the refugee crisis and terror attacks in France, but it would be extraordinary if it has shifted by such a big margin to secure Brexit.
From such a position of strength the confident Mr Cameron must now sell Europe to the British public. The big question is whether he can do so in a way that leaves no residue of resentment; if can secure an ‘In’ vote without further contributing to popular suspicions of Westminster held by voters who could well end up feeling that they were conned into choosing the ‘ribht’ answer by the machinations of a supremely skilful politician.
It’s unlikely. From the start of Cameron’s leadership Europe has been a weak point – and now it threatens to terminate his time in office, just as this disruptive issue did with previous Tory prime ministers. He urged the party to stop banging on about Europe, then encouraged enemies on the Right with a series of foolish tactical feints that served only to inflame the issue. Indeed, this flaw can be traced back to his fight to win the leadership, when he gave an ill-conceived pledge to pull out of the main centre-Right group in Brussels to pick up some votes on the Right fringe.
Crucially, Mr Cameron is a supremely-competitive character. As we saw in the debate over voting reform five years ago, he will play hard to win rather than stick to the Corinthian spirit and risk defeat; his former deputy Nick Clegg can testify to this. Already the Prime Minister has provoked anger by telling MPs to ignore local activists, while there are dark hints of reshuffles after the vote to dump troublesome ministers. No doubt the Government could survive the loss of Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers, but the message such sackings send the enemy camp would not be the salve needed to soothe wounds of defeat.
The public too, will be subjected to a brutal information war, filled with bluster and falsehoods. The electorate breaks down into three camps: those desperate to leave; those determined to stay; and those trapped helplessly in the middle of a tedious tussle between obsessives. These last, unfortunate hostages will determine the outcome: they dislike Europe in their hearts, but their heads tell them risks of departure are too high. Thus the fight becomes a struggle between logic and emotion, with campaigners from both sides working away at the conflict within millions of people with far more important things to focus on.
The biggest burden rests on the Out camp, since they must persuade those undecideds that Brexit does not threaten their security or well-being. The irony is that such argument overstate the rather marginal decision that voters will actually be asked to decide on: whether to quit and give up having any say in making the EU’s rules while remaining heavily integrated or to stay instead as a semi-detached member, outside the dominant group of euro states. The biggest impact will then be psychological – on how we perceive ourselves as a nation – not material.
Aides say Mr Cameron remains confident – but referendums are strange and unpredictable beasts. He is a prime minister in his pomp, but if the nation defies him by voting for Brexit, everything would unravel fast. So he will not leave anything to chance and appears unconcerned about bruises left on enemies. ‘I am not sure he cares much about the internal damage. If he wins he will be in an unprecedented position, a Prime Minister without another electoral contest who can concentrate on his legacy without a backward glance,’ says one close adviser.
This is a big prize for any politician, let alone one intent on reshaping the electoral landscape after Labour’s lurch to the Left. What’s more, assuming the European Union survives its current chaos, this could be the last stand for those in Britain seeking withdrawal. Unlike the Scottish independence referendum, those seeking to change the country’s constitutional status are predominantly older, very different to the young, energised nationalists north of the border. And younger generations are much more enthusiastic about Europe, as on other cultural changes. Win this time, and the demographics suggest Mr Cameron may put the Europe question to bed for good. No wonder he does not intend to relax and play nice. Nor should he.