For Cameron it’s two referendums in one: on his Tory leadership and his charisma as prime minister. And the fate of Europe is at stake.
British Prime Minister David Cameron’s associates sometimes quip that he only has two modi operandi: complacency and panic. It is widely agreed that he saves his best for the latter. And as Cameron prepares for the EU referendum on 23 June, he belatedly appears to be starting to worry.
In recent months, David Cameron has been busy on three fronts: renegotiation of the UK’s EU membership with Brussels and other member states; a tussle within his party in Westminster; and the EU in or out referendum.
With the first two largely settled, attention is now focused on the third.
In Brussels, the government tried to build up a head of steam leading up to the European Council meeting in late February. The British pitch has been that rather than demanding special treatment, the UK is seeking to reform the EU as a whole, introducing changes that should benefit all other member states. The prime minister finds himself walking a tightrope here as other member states see matters differently. Some are voicing concern over British exceptionalism. They fear that by giving in to a populist precedent any member state may then can call for special treatment by holding a referendum. Many EU members were alarmed when France’s National Front president Marine Le Pen announced that, if elected, she would follow the British example. Meanwhile, other states are concerned that the changes suggested will make the European Union too British. Unlike previous protocols (for Ireland or Denmark), they fear the British deal will apply to everyone. Integrationist-minded countries are particularly nervous about proposals to empower national parliaments and changes to the wording of an “ever closer union”, which will lose its legal force if it doesn’t apply universally.
The second battlefront is within David Cameron’s own party. The Conservative and Unionist Party has been engaged in an endless skirmish over its position towards Europe, one that strikes at the heart of the right-wing coalition, comprised of internationally- oriented capitalists and flag-waving nationalists as assembled by Lord Salisbury over a century ago. Cameron has been trying to keep the two factions together and in fact called this referendum in order to avoid an outright split within the party.
But as the referendum approaches, people have been forced to show their colours. Cameron needs to garner the support of many important figures within his own cabinet as well as parliamentary backbenchers. The cabinet is for the most part on his side: out of 30 cabinet members, only six back Brexit. With the exception of Justice Secretary Michael Gove, the rest are fairly colourless and low-profile. Thus the attention has been focused on two prominent swing voters: Home Secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson. These two heavyweights could certainly help to sway the opinion of the Conservative base. Cameron has succeeded in getting Theresa May on his side, but not Boris Johnson. Johnson is a charismatic figure with an uncanny knack of connecting with the people, but whether he can reassure public opinion that there’s a clear strategy behind the UK EU opt out is another matter. Many are suspicious of Johnson’s position, as he had admitted several times in the past he was no outer, and perhaps he is in fact jockeying for position in order to further his chances of becoming the next prime minister rather than standing for what he truly believes.
But the most challenging front of all will be the British public, which has hitherto been neglected but will ultimately decide the referendum.
So how will the British public vote? The public is split roughly three ways: Europhobes, pro-Europeans and the undecided. Eurosceptics have been presenting a distorted view of the debate as a battle between an elite in favour and the public wanting out, but the public is not that strongly EU sceptical. It is the elite who are promoting this narrative. Boris Johnson went to the same school as Cameron, the ultra-elitist Eton, and most of the money for the out campaign has come from hedge funds rather than individual donors.
Many undecided voters are unhappy about aspects of globalisation and European integration such as the free movement of labour, increased competition and the feeling that their government is powerless to tackle these worrying trends.
The core debate will thus be framed by two different narratives. Eurosceptics are promising the UK will be able to tighten its border controls by leaving the European Union, while the pro- Europeans argue that these issues are best tackled from a position of strength, and as a member of the European Union, Britain should have a stronger economy, stronger security and a louder voice in the world. The in campaign claims that the control promised by the out camp is an illusion. Most importantly, they stress the fact that the out camp does not have any kind of watertight plan for Britain’s relationship with the European Union once it leaves. There is no shared position within the out camp on how Britain would access the single market or what kind of stance it would adopt on immigration and border controls.
The remain campaign is convinced that the way forward is to emphasise that – with the referendum less than 20 weeks away – there is still no credible account of what Britain will look like outside of the European Union. Cameron is likely to repeat this line of attack relentlessly, striking the fear of the unknown into the hearts of undecided voters.
The Spectator magazine heralds the return of “Project Fear”; as with the Scottish campaign, the in campaign will expose the contradictions and inconsistencies of the sceptics. Weaker national and economic security is one of the risks associated with a Brexit. Thus Cameron has been emphasising the geopolitical dangers of leaving the EU and going it alone in a perilous and uncertain world. He would like people to believe that Britain leaving the EU is exactly what Russian President Vladimir Putin and Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi would want.
Cameron hopes the in camp will achieve a majority because the British public is naturally conservative and unwilling to take a leap into the unknown. The fact that the out camp has not come up with a viable plan will add to this sense of uncertainty, as will their lack of serious and credible voices on economic and national security issues. Under normal political circumstances, this theory would be compelling. But given the success of populist parties like Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, the election of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party and the rise of Donald Trump in the US primaries, the out camp has hopes that the anti-elitist tide rising around the world might also flood English shores.
In the meantime, David Cameron has finally stopped acting complacent and is getting down to business on all three fronts. Just in time: the latest polls suggest over 50% of Britons may vote to leave the European Union.