Why David Cameron will not lead the UK out of Europe

Nigel Farage could do for Brexit what Nick Clegg did for electoral reform.

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A referendum is coming on Britain’s membership of the EU – and sooner than we thought. The new Conservative majority government is considering bringing forward a referendum to 2016, a year earlier than the Tory manifesto promised.

When the referendum comes, it is certain that many Tories – David Cameron’s irreconcilables – will campaign to leave the EU. But the notion that Britain is sleepwalking towards Brexit is a myth: of 20 polls on EU membership this year, 18 found that the public prefer to stay in.

And for Better Off Outers, it could be even worse than it looks. There is an iron law in British attitudes to the EU: the younger they are, the more Europhile they come. By a margin of at least 30 points, those aged 18-24 and 25-39 want to stay in the EU. Although Britain’s population is ageing those who are better educated and have lived or worked abroad tend to stubbornly cling onto their pro European beliefs. Unless Brexit can find a message that appeals to the more cosmopolitan Britain, it risks death by demographics: with every passing year, a vote to leave becomes less likely (as I argued last year).

Even older generations look amenable to staying in Europe. After a straight question on Brexit, YouGov ask a follow-up question: “Imagine the British government under David Cameron renegotiated our relationship with Europe and said that Britain's interests were now protected, and David Cameron recommended that Britain remain a member of the European Union on the new terms.”

This is exactly what will happen when the referendum comes. As Harold Wilson did in 1975, Cameron will extract a concession, however small – probably limiting the benefits that migrants are eligible to claim – and trumpet it as evidence that Britain should stay in. By almost three-to-one, people say they would vote to stay in; even over-60s reject Brexit by 24%. All of this before the inevitable avalanche of pressure from businesses to stay in the EU as the vote dawns; HSBC has already announced that it might up sticks from London if Brexit happens. And then there’s the tendency for referenda – whether on Australia becoming a republic, Quebec seceding from Canada or Scotland leaving the UK – to plump for the status quo over uncertainty.

But the greatest barrier of all to leaving the EU could be Nigel Farage. In the AV referendum four years ago, the toxicity of Nick Clegg sunk his great cause of electoral reform. Now Farage could do the same for Brxit.

Look at what happened in Thanet South two weeks ago. Farage had his pick of the UK’s 650 seats, and chose Thanet South because he believed that it was particularly amenable to his message.

But it turned out there was an even more attractive message to the electorate: stop Farage. “The person that was going to win the election was the person who could unite the anti-Farage vote,” explained Will Scobie, Labour’s losing candidate. That proved to be the Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay who, as a campaign insider told me, won be being “seen as the lesser of two evils with people who identified as centre-left.”

The message from Thanet – even more applicable after Farage’s embarrassing unresignation as Ukip leader – is clear. Frame the referendum as a vote on Farage and his worldview, and Britain will comprehensively reject Brexit.

Cameron’s fear will be that not enough anti-Faragists get to the ballot box; the best chance of a vote to leave the EU rests on low turnout. Perhaps this is why the government is attracted by an early referendum. In the general election, Ukip polled 8% in London, and a derisory 1.5% in Scotland. On May 5 next year, London votes for a new Mayor, while Scotland votes for the make-up of the next Scottish Parliament. A big turnout in the two parts of the UK in which Ukip is most loathed will ensure that Cameron does not lead the country out of Europe. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.