The UK and Europe

The knife-edge referendum

Andrew Grice / Mar 2016

David Cameron, UK prime minister. Photo: European Union

When David Cameron struck his agreement on Britain’s EU membership terms at the European Council in February, he had a plan. It was to be quick off the mark to sell the deal to the British public ahead of the June referendum. He quickly used up ammunition about the risks of Brexit to try to build momentum that would make an In vote look inevitable and leave a divided Out camp stuck in the starting blocks. His aim was to secure a clear lead in the opinion polls and win a decisive victory that would settle the issue for a generation.

However, the Cameron campaign has not gone according to plan. About half of the 330 Conservative MPs have come out for Brexit, wrecking the Prime Minister’s hopes of portraying the Outers as the usual Eurosceptic suspects. He expected Michael Gove, a close ally and the Justice Secretary, to campaign for Brexit, but suffered an unexpected setback when Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, backed withdrawal despite recently telling Tory MPs he was “never an Outer.”

Mr Johnson’s move destabilised the Cameron campaign. It turned the referendum into a surrogate Conservative Party leadership contest between the London Mayor and George Osborne, the Chancellor and Mr Cameron’s favoured successor when he steps down before the 2020 general election.

There was worse to come. Mr Osborne, the main Tory cheerleader for EU membership along with Mr Cameron, suffered another blow when Iain Duncan Smith, one of six Cabinet ministers campaigning for Brexit, resigned over disability benefit cuts in the Budget, further tarnishing the Chancellor’s reputation. Although Mr Duncan Smith insisted his decision had nothing to do with Europe, Cameron and Osborne allies believe his secondary aim was to undermine the In campaign and its leaders, while making the Outers look principled. The Tory civil war which erupted after his resignation made Mr Cameron’s main priority --winning the referendum-- even harder to achieve. It was a reminder that many Tory politicians care more about leaving the EU than their party’s unity, discipline or electoral prospects.

The polls suggest the referendum is on a knife edge. Mr Cameron has admitted that he fears a lower turnout among people inclined to stay in the EU than among those who passionately want to leave.

The EU’s agreement with Turkey, while designed to ease the migration crisis, may do little to boost the prospects of an In vote in Britain. Mr Cameron  may struggle to convince voters  that Turkey joining the EU is a remote prospect when they hear that membership talks have been speeded up.

Alan Johnson, the former Home Secretary, who heads the Labour In for Britain campaign, says the In crowd “has the best lyrics” but admits it is “struggling for a tune.” Labour may be part of the problem: its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn is at best lukewarm about the EU. Labour pro-Europeans suspect Mr Corbyn believes the EU is the same anti-democratic capitalist club he saw when he voted to leave in the 1975 referendum and that, unlike many in the Labour Party and trade unions, he was not won over by the “social Europe” offered by Jacques Delors.

Despite all the unwelcome noises off, Cameron aides insists the In camp has the  simple message and trump card that its opponents lack – leaving the EU would be a “leap in the dark.”  The inability of the Outers to spell out a single clear vision of life outside the EU –whether Britain would follow the Norwegian, Swiss or Canadian models-- underlines the risk. It makes the In camp unapologetic about what the Outers condemn as “Project Fear”.

As well as being a battle of risks, the referendum is about control. The most appealing argument of the Out brigade is that Britain would take back control of its immigration policy, law-making, business rules and justice system. To counter that, the In camp needs to argue more forcefully that the UK would enjoy more control over its fate as a bigger player on the world stage inside the EU.

Andrew Grice

Andrew Grice

March 2016

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