Westminster may have been guilty of ignoring the Scottish referendum until the last minute, but no one can accuse it of doing the same with the EU one. No one knows when this vote will take place, yet every conversation about the politics of this parliament revolves around the subject. The referendum, and its aftermath, will determine not only whether Britain stays in the European Union but also who the next prime minister will be and whether the Tories win a landslide in 2020.
The In and Out campaigns are up and running, even though David Cameron’s renegotiation with the EU is far from complete. With Labour failing to provide competent or credible opposition, the battle between In and Out will quickly become the most gripping political story in the land.
Neither campaign knows when the referendum will be, and the government doesn’t, either. Autumn next year is the preferred date, but I understand that the cabinet committee handling the EU renegotiation has not even had a discussion about when it will be. One member of the committee predicts that, at the current pace, the vote will end up happening far later than people expect, some time in 2017. Another admits: ‘We were hoping to be further ahead than we are now. But this unexpected event came up.’
This ‘unexpected event’ is, of course, the migrant crisis. This mass movement of people is preoccupying European leaders and EU institutions. European Councils that Cameron would have expected to revolve around Britain’s renegotiation have been dominated by the refugee issue.
But the flow of people into Europe from Africa, the Middle East and Asia isn’t just affecting the schedule of the renegotiation, it is changing how British voters think about the EU. One of those intimately involved in the government’s strategy for the renegotiation and the referendum says: ‘Out popped up in the polls because you had Calais on the TV in August and then the whole European situation in September.’ Europe’s incompetent handling of this crisis, exemplified by Angela Merkel’s rapidly rescinded invitation to Syrians to come to Germany to claim asylum, has added to a sense that the European Union increasingly brings Britain problems, not solutions.
What is going on in the renegotiation is far from clear. One Eurosceptic cabinet member is irritated that the government doesn’t seem to realise the strength of its position. A senior No. 10 aide complains that those in Downing Street handling the talks are being too secretive with colleagues, while the diplomatic community in London has been reduced to asking journalists what they think Cameron wants.
It is clear that the government doesn’t want to push publicly for anything that it isn’t extremely confident of getting; note how the only renegotiation goal that Cameron mentioned in his conference speech was getting Britain out of ‘ever closer union’. But a consequence of this is that the government doesn’t look like it is asking for much, which pushes more Tory donors and activists towards the Out camp. As the renegotiation goes on, the two campaigns will spar. The In campaign’s appointment of Stuart Rose as its chairman reveals Downing Street’s influence. Not only was he ennobled by Cameron, but he has made Eurosceptic noises in the past. He has suggested that the In campaign understands that it needs to court voters with no emotional connection to the EU. Appointing him also avoids having someone who backed Britain joining the euro as the face of the campaign. But Rose’s role does tie the campaign to the establishment. The In campaign is dismissive of this criticism, arguing that if the public was as anti-establishment as the pundits claim it wouldn’t have elected a Conservative majority government with Cameron as Prime Minister.
It is puzzling why no major Tory figure has come out for leaving. Given that a plurality of people who voted Tory at the last election favour a British departure from the EU, this is a Tory failure. But rather than courting Tory big beasts, the Out campaign is trying to win over activists. One senior figure argues that this bottom-up approach is most likely to deliver results and once you have one leadership candidate, others will follow. In others words, get the activists, then Boris and, finally, squeeze George.
At the moment, it is almost impossible to imagine Osborne doing anything other than campaigning for In. I am informed that he is irritated by the tendency of some Eurosceptics to suggest that all of Britain’s problems would be solved if we came out of the EU. But there is an interesting precedent for Osborne changing his mind. When the Tories were in opposition, he was fiercely sceptical of localism and regional devolution. Now he is the champion of the northern powerhouse and is devolving as much as he can to city regions. What changed Osborne’s mind was a mix of experience and political calculation, and one of his cabinet allies speculates that the same could happen on the EU, especially if the polls begin to move in Out’s favour.
At the moment, Osborne is against cabinet collective responsibility being abandoned for the referendum. He doesn’t want to see Conservative ministers at the top of both campaigns. Interestingly, No. 10 seems far more open to the suspension of collective responsibility than before. At the Tory conference in Manchester last week, several of Cameron’s closest allies indicated that this was where he would end up. It would make it that much easier to put the party back together again post referendum.
Ultimately, this referendum will be determined by events outside the control of Downing Street or either campaign. If all is quiet on the European front between now and the vote, Britain will, without any great enthusiasm, back staying in. But another flare-up of the eurozone crisis, or a further surge of refugees that the EU fails to tackle, could see the status quo upended.
The Spectator is hosting an evening discussion ‘Is the EU bad for business?’ at 7pm on Tuesday 20 October at The Royal College of Surgeons, WC2. Speakers include: Dominic Cummings, director of the ‘No’ campaign and Will Straw, executive director of the ‘Yes to Europe’ campaign and is chaired by Andrew Neil. For tickets and further information, click here.