An EU referendum that David Cameron never wanted to hold is now likely just five months away. By staging the vote long before his promised deadline of December 2017, the Prime Minister is depriving the Out campaign of what it needs most: time. His aim is to limit the potential for any unexpected event – an economic crisis, a terrorist attack, a scandal in Brussels – that could hand the Brexiters the advantage. European leaders, wearied by “the British problem”, are happy to oblige.
The draft agreement between the UK and the EU does not represent the “fundamental, far-reaching change” that the Prime Minister promised in his 2013 Bloomberg speech. European migrants will be as free as before to travel to Britain. A proposed four-year ban on in-work benefit claims has become a “graduated” increase. The UK’s “red card” veto over EU laws is subject to 55 per cent approval among national parliaments. And Britain has achieved no new opt-outs from social, employment and environmental legislation.
In the view of the Vote Leave campaign, Cameron has undershot an already low bar. Some EU supporters believe that their chances of victory would have been greater
had he not embarked on this mission. His decision to do so, they fear, has only dramatised the imperviousness of Brussels to reform. Cameron’s insistence otherwise exposes him to the charge not merely of failure but that of deception.
Yet it does not follow that he is destined to fail in his two aims: to hold his party together and to win the referendum. Fewer than a third of Conservative MPs and perhaps as few as five cabinet members (Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Priti Patel, Theresa Villiers and John Whittingdale) will endorse withdrawal. Theresa May’s support for Cameron’s deal leaves Boris Johnson as the only front-rank Conservative who could yet oppose him – and most expect the London Mayor to relent. Tory MPs on both sides speak with sincerity of their desire to avoid a rerun of the 1990s Maastricht wars. Just as it was the prospect of election defeat that incentivised rebellion then, so it is the prospect of victory that
encourages discipline now.
The modesty of Cameron’s renegotiation mirrors that of his predecessor Harold Wilson. In advance of the 1975 referendum, the Labour prime minister achieved paltry concessions such as increased quotas for New Zealand butter. Yet Britain voted by 67-33 to remain. Polling shows that a significant number of those undecided are prepared to accept anything that Cameron defines as an adequate settlement. As a recently re-elected prime minister with a career-long record of Euroscepticism, Cameron comes close to the Platonic ideal of an In campaign leader. Private research by Britain Stronger in Europe found that he holds greater sway over Labour supporters than any of the party’s own figureheads.
Were the referendum merely a popularity contest, the outcome would not be in doubt. The UK is profoundly sceptical of the EU. But it is no less sceptical of withdrawal. The aim of the Out campaign is to portray Europe as a burning building with an exit. But like a cartoon character who succumbs to gravity in mid-air, voters fear a painful landing. It is around the fundamentals of prosperity and security that Cameron will seek to shape the campaign.
When voters awarded the Conservatives a majority last May, they did not do so out of affection but out of fear of the alternative. It is this dynamic that In supporters hope will apply during the referendum. A certain loss trumps a perceived gain.
The great defect of the Out campaign is its inability to agree on what a post-EU future looks like. For libertarians such as Ukip’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell, it lies in the UK becoming a Singapore of the West: a lean, free-trading state that is bracingly open to capital and migration. For others such as his party’s leader, Nigel Farage, the ideal is “fortress Britain”: an isolationist state that regains control of its borders. This intellectual schism has been formalised in the Judean People’s Front-style split between Vote Leave (Carswell) and Leave.EU (Farage). Though it is the former that is likely to be designated by the Electoral Commission as the official Out campaign, some fear that the divisive Ukip leader – a 15 per cent politician, not a 50 per cent one – will become the face of Brexit.
For another wing, represented by Labour MPs such as Kate Hoey and Kelvin Hopkins, withdrawal would enable the creation of a socialist economy free from the diktats of the single market. Still more extol the non-EU members Norway and Switzerland, though both have to follow rules from Brussels without the ability to make them.
Such is the quandary that, in a blog published last June, Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s campaign director (who survived a recent coup attempt), wrote: “There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue. No 10 is dusting off its lines from the Scottish referendum.” As he recognised, the spectre of our post-EU future could prove as fatal to the Out campaign as the currency question was to the Scottish Yes side. It was with the intention of reassuring voters that Cummings floated the option of a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, once the fact of it had been established. But only with the support of Boris Johnson (who could become prime minister in the event of an Out vote) would it become a realistic possibility.
The tide presently favours Cameron’s “little rubber life raft” (as Jim Callaghan described the 1975 referendum). The Out side lacks a leader and a unified message. The economy is still growing and sustained hostility to immigration has not translated into support for Brexit. Like Mr Micawber, the Out campaign is left to hope that something turns up.
This article appears in the 03 Feb 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war