Cameron Needs to Keep Calm and Carry On
Four out out of the last five opinion polls suggest those favoring Britain leaving the European Union are in the ascendancy. The challenge now for Prime Minister David Cameron and the "remain" camp is not to panic.
With much supporting argument from the Treasury, the IMF and others, the remain camp has dominated the economic case. It still looks solidly ahead with the bookmakers. But as the end of the campaign nears, there is a danger its leaders will resort to exaggeration and fear-mongering to seal victory. Recent votes -- including the overwhelming victory of Labour Party candidate Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral race after his opponent tried to suggest he had Islamic extremist sympathies -- suggest that could backfire. Khan kept his cool amidst the allegations and voters rewarded him.
That was also the case in the December 2015 Danish vote on their opt-out from Europol (The EU’s law-enforcement agency). A month before the vote, the government had a comfortable 6 percent lead in the opinion polls. But when a desperate opposition tried to play on immigration fears, the government took the bait. A failure to vote "yes" to Europol, they argued hysterically, would be welcomed by pedophiles all over the country. Level-headed Danes balked at the assertion; the government lost its lead and never recovered.
Similarly, in the 2005 referendum in the Netherlands on the European constitution, the pro-European camp seemed to have an unassailable lead, with 76 percent of Dutch respondents telling pollsters they view the EU as a "good thing." But as the referendum drew closer, the government became defensive and prone to exaggeration, especially after the "no" campaign claimed sovereignty was being eroded (one of the chief claims of Britain's Leave campaign). The governing party hit a low note when its European Parliament delegation released a video that portrayed the dangers of a "no" vote against a backdrop of scenes from the Holocaust, Srebrenica and the 2004 Madrid bombings. The video was quickly withdrawn, but the damage was done. The no camp won the referendum with 61.5 percent of the vote.
David Cameron’s warning on May 9, that a vote to leave the EU risked effectively destroying the postwar peace in Europe is not unlike the ill-fated Danish and Dutch warnings. Two days after Cameron’s speech, the Brexit side recorded a three percent lead after they had been on the back foot in the first week of May.
Fortunately for Cameron, his opponents are even more inclined to resort to fear-mongering. Former mayor of London Boris Johnson's ill-fated remark that the EU was an attempt to do what Hitler done “by different methods" is one example. At the end of April, Nigel Farage more or less repeated the doomed claims made by the Danish government about pedophiles. That did not help his cause. These remarks were followed by a drop in support for ‘leave.’ Johnson's more recent focus on a positive vision for Britain outside the EU has coincided with the surge in support for his camp.
So what's the best move for David Cameron and the "remain" campaign in the final weeks before the referendum? Keep calm and carry on.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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