It was midway through his Question Time appearance on the EU referendum that David Cameron came to life. After an audience member denounced him as a “21st-century Neville Chamberlain”, Cameron retaliated with his most passionate performance of the campaign. “I don’t think Britain, at the end, is a quitter,” he declared, invoking the memory of Churchill. “I think we stay and fight”.
Until this point, the Prime Minister had been on autopilot, delivering Remain’s well-worn, if effective, economic warnings. His patriotic oration was a demonstration of the passion that some wanted to trump “Project Fear”.
To Cameron’s discomfort, much of the programme focused on immigration, Leave’s strongest suit. The PM was inevitably challenged on his reckless pledge to reduce net migration to “tens of thousands” a year (it presently stands at 333,000). He maintained that his forthcoming welfare reforms would make “a big difference” to EU migration (though there is no evidence they will) and emphasised that Europeans only accounted for half the total. It was proving “difficult”, he said, to control immigration from outside the continent. What he knows, but cannot say, is that this is because he is struggling to reconcile an economic positive with a political negative.
Asked whether he would veto the accession of Turkey, Cameron described it as “the biggest red herring” of the debate, rightly stating that there was no prospect of the country joining for decades. By this time, he wryly noted, he would no longer be Prime Minister. But while pledging not to support Turkish membership while in office, he defended its membership bid on the grounds that it was the best hope of building a “western-style democracy”.
There were no notable gaffes, though Cameron was derided when he conceded that his planned reforms still had to be signed off by the 27 other member states. He fluently delivered Remain’s defining economic message – “There isn’t a saving from leaving the EU, there’s a cost” – and warned repeatedly that Brexit would be “irreversible”. “Once you have jumped out of the aeroplane, you can’t scramble back in through the cockpit hatch.” The greater risks associated with leaving should deliver Remain victory on Thursday, perhaps by a greater margin than many expect. But as Cameron was uncomfortably reminded tonight, immigration is an omnipresent threat.