Cameron's Final Gamble — It Could All Go ‘Horrifically Wrong’

  • Premier betting that few ministers will oppose staying in EU
  • Referendum campaign will be about messages, not deal details

David Cameron’s political career has been marked by a series of last-minute victories, often after his chances were written off. As he prepares for his final national electoral contest, a referendum on whether Britain should leave the European Union, the question is whether this is a gamble too far.

Having struck a deal in Brussels with fellow EU leaders that allows the U.K. to to cut some welfare payments to migrants from inside the bloc, the prime minister will return to London and put the result to his cabinet Saturday morning. He’s betting only a few ministers will announce they’re going to take the opposite side from him in the coming referendum battle and campaign for the U.K. to leave.

That’s the first in a series of ways Cameron’s high-stakes strategy could go wrong over the next four months. He’s also calculated that opposition to EU membership from many of Britain’s newspapers won’t shift many votes; that the anti-establishment mood among much of the electorate won’t turn voters off a campaign spearheaded by the prime minister and the leaders of other mainstream parties; and that a surge in refugees entering Europe from Syria won’t put off Britons already worried by rising immigration.

“He won the party leadership from behind in 2005, he won the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, and he won the general election last year when everyone said he couldn’t,” Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said in an interview. “Either he wins this one, and then retires in a few years triumphant, or it goes horrifically wrong for him. And it could.”

‘Open Door’

Cowley said the “Leave” campaign, which has so far been hampered by internal splits, is nevertheless “pushing at an open door” in terms of public attitudes. While polling companies differ about whether the “Leave” or “Remain” campaigns are ahead, all have shown a shift in support this year toward an exit.

Cameron felt forced to promise a referendum in January 2013 as part of an effort to stop both voters and lawmakers defecting from his Conservative Party to the insurgent U.K. Independence Party. It wasn’t totally successful: two Tory members of Parliament switched in 2014, and UKIP’s vote share quadrupled between 2010 and 2015, though the party won only one seat in last year’s general election.

Diplomatic Whirl

Since Cameron’s surprise win in that vote, he has engaged in a diplomatic whirl, visiting European capital after European capital in an effort to secure a deal that he can sell to the British public as overcoming their doubts about the EU. 

The details of the deal matter less than how the public perceives it. A YouGov Plc poll in the immediate aftermath of the first draft being announced at the start of February was bad news for the government: 46 percent said it was a bad deal, while 22 percent thought it was good. Here there’s another risk for the prime minister: Any hint that he left Brussels having been forced to give ground will boost the cause of those who say the EU isn’t prepared to bend in Britain’s direction.

While the prime minister insisted at a post-summit news conference Friday he had addressed the British people’s concerns about Europe, the issue that is consistently near the top of voters’ lists is immigration. Cameron was asked whether the deal would cut the numbers coming from Eastern Europe. “We accept free movement under the rules of the EU,” he said. “We accept that. We think that people benefit from that.”

Still, he argued, cuts to the amount of welfare migrants will be allowed to claim, and how long they will be able to stay without work will reduce numbers. Migrants can currently “instantly get as much as 10,000 pounds ($14,400) a year in tax credits,” he said. “Don’t tell me that isn’t a draw.”

Safer In

In the end, though, the campaign will have little to do with the details of the changes Cameron has negotiated. The prime minister’s message is that with every threat, from terrorism to economic instability, the U.K. is safer inside the EU than outside.

The question of message is one of the areas over which the “Leave” campaigns are split. UKIP leader Nigel Farage favors focusing the campaign on the idea that leaving would allow Britain to restrict EU migration. Others fear this will alienate center-ground voters, and want to put the spotlight on how, outside the EU, Britain would have more control over its own laws and would be able to negotiate new trade deals.

These campaigns are likely to be supported by the country’s biggest-selling newspapers, The Sun and the Daily Mail, which both took a hostile view of Cameron’s deal when he revealed it at the start of the month. With the coming closure of the Independent titles, the U.K.’s only strongly pro-EU papers are the Mirror and the Guardian.

The biggest immediate unknown for Cameron is how many members of his own party back leaving. It is here that there are signs the prime minister has underestimated the strength of the internal opposition he faces. Last year, he flirted with forcing any minister who wanted to campaign against him to leave the government, but he was forced to back down. He was also forced to accept that his Conservative Party will remain neutral, rather than using staff and money to support its leader’s campaign.

Even though Cameron has now said that ministers will be free to campaign against him, it’s a risk for any ambitious politician to take the opposite side of the debate from both the prime minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne.

Leadership Contest

But for the most ambitious -- London Mayor Boris Johnson and Business Secretary Sajid Javid perhaps -- the calculation is different. With Cameron planning to step down before the 2020 election, there will be a a contest to select a new Tory leader -- and prime minister. The favorite is Osborne, but as he will have taken the pro-EU side in the referendum, there is an opportunity for someone who wants to have been the voice of leaving -- the position that most ordinary party members and many lawmakers are likely to take.

Cameron expects a certain number of cabinet ministers to campaign for “Out”: He said late Friday in Brussels that he’s “disappointed,” though “not surprised” that Justice Secretary Michael Gove will do so.

Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling, and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers have also been longstanding opponents of EU membership. None commands widespread public recognition, while Gove alienated many teachers and parents when he was education secretary. A bigger name, like Johnson, Javid or Home Secretary Theresa May, could be enough to unite the fighting “Leave” campaigns and shift the argument.

That’s why politicians who want to see the U.K. stay in the EU think Cameron has miscalculated this time. Wes Streeting, an opposition Labour member of Parliament, is predicting a narrow win for the “Leave” side. The latest poll, published Friday by TNS, showed a 3 percentage-point lead for “Leave” with 25 percent of respondents undecided.

“This feels like a country sleepwalking towards Brexit,” Streeting said in an interview. “There’s a vacuum where there should be strong political leadership making the ‘In’ case.”

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