David Cameron has given up the war of attrition and opted for a blitz. He’s decided that a big margin of victory is his best chance of surviving the referendum, and he knows that the best means of achieving this is by scaring people.
It’s likely he’ll succeed, but when it comes to his underlying ambition to settle the European question for the Conservatives, he will have failed, because for many in his party, winning the vote isn’t the same as winning the argument.
This week must surely have marked the apotheosis of ‘Project Fear’. On Monday, David Cameron invoked the image of nothing other than a bomb. Brexit would “put a bomb under the economy,” said the Prime Minister, “and the worst thing is that we’d have lit the fuse ourselves.”
The fuse to which he refers is the promise he made three years ago to hold an In-Out referendum if his party won the general election. It was a promise to let the British people ‘have their say’, with the simultaneous intention of appeasing and then muzzling the wing of his party that had been demanding it. Why has this promise turned into a fuse? And is the Prime Minister sure it isn’t rather leading towards his own Cabinet?
For David Davis – the Conservative MP who challenged David Cameron for his party’s leadership in 2005, and is now campaigning to leave the EU – it’s indicative of a long-term plan that’s gone badly wrong. In his view, the referendum has been poorly handled “in both strategic and tactical terms”, and he told me that when it comes to the Conservative divide over Europe, “it has worsened the problem, there’s no doubt about it.”
Mr. Davis is adamant that Remain’s scare campaign ultimately stems from a lack of alternative arguments combined with a secret terror that Brexit would be an outstanding success. The weaker the claim, the greater one is prone to exaggerate it, says Davis.
But what’s making the split in the Prime Minister’s party all the more acrimonious is that this is precisely what Cameron promised not to do when he made his ‘Bloomberg Speech’ in January 2013, outlining his ambitions for comprehensive EU reform and announcing his promise to hold the vote. In other words, the speech by which he lit the fuse.
He stated then that “proponents on both sides of the argument will need to avoid exaggerating their claims” before proclaiming that “of course Britain could make our own way in the world, outside the EU, if we chose to do so, so could any other member state.” That much of his campaign has dedicated itself to denying the latter statement by means of violating the former pledge doesn’t sit well amongst Leavers.
What caused the change of tone? For Mr. Davis, of course there’s an element of political panic at work, but so is there an acute struggle for self-preservation. After all, there are some Brexiteers who are campaigning for their own ends. So the Prime Minister certainly gave hostage to fortune by so prematurely announcing that he wouldn’t be standing for a third term. In trying to settle the European question, Mr. Cameron is trying to enshrine his legacy. In trying to settle it so quickly, he’s made a big mistake, says Mr. Davies.
According to him, the Prime Minister had two other options. He could have had two referendums, first to agree on the mandate with which to negotiate in the first place, thus putting “phenomenal pressure” on the commissioners of the other countries, and then another to decide on the outcome.
He might otherwise have decided on a vote but taken a more aloof approach to it, somewhat in the manner of Harold Wilson. He might said ‘this is a fundamental issue for the country, I won’t fiddle around with negotiations, you know how this has worked for the past forty years, you know I’m undertaken to continue to seek reform so long as I’m Prime Minister’, and then stood above the matter, and let the public decide. In such circumstances, Davis believes, the Prime Minister wouldn’t feel as threatened as he is alleged to be.
Instead, Cameron did something in between. He went into negotiations with no real levers, and consequently got a poor outcome that has virtually been forgotten since. This fired up the right wing he’s been trying to quell ever since becoming his party’s leader and disillusioned those whose loyalty depended on the promise of genuine reform, such as Boris Johnson. He must be kicking himself, said Davis.
Consequently, the Prime Minister’s been unable to make the positive case for the European Union that he should be making, and has little else but the economy on which to focus. Against the claims that the Union is anti-democratic, that it is fundamentally immune to reform, and that a voluntary economic agreement has morphed into an inescapable political project since Britain joined the EEC in 1973, he’s had little to say.
As such, the long-term questions about the EU are being obfuscated, and his party’s Leave campaigners who want them debated are getting infuriated. It would only take 50 Conservative MPs to trigger a vote of no confidence, and the more the Prime Minister betrays his promise to argue fairly and address matters of principle, the more likely he is to reach this golden number.
David Cameron has spent ten years trying to unify the Conservatives on the European question, ever since he argued for more powers to be returned to Westminster from Brussels when contesting the leadership with Mr. Davis. He’s now got just two weeks left, and the more frantically he tries to win the vote, the more likely he looks like losing his party.