The best thing that can be said for David Cameron’s current predicament is that he has been here before. His career has been punctuated by moments when the polls and the pundits have said he was done for. In 2007, with the new Prime Minister Gordon Brown enjoying a honey-moon and considering a snap election, this magazine pictured him on the cover with a noose and the headline ‘Get out of this, Dave’. He did. At times, even he has thought his leadership was over. On election day last year, he spent the early evening rehearsing his resignation speech to his closest aides. Hours later, he was hailing the ‘sweetest victory of all’.
It was the Scottish referendum two years ago that caused Cameron the most worry. There were, Samantha Cameron has admitted, sleepless nights as the polls tightened. But, eventually, the Vow — the offer of further devolution to Scotland which Cameron put his name to — helped save the Union.
So, what will Cameron do to save himself in the next week? His closest allies in the Remain camp are adamant that there will be no change in strategy. When I asked a senior figure in the campaign if they planned to do anything differently in the last ten days, the answer was a simple ‘no’.
George Osborne’s brutal ‘Brexit Budget’ was entirely in keeping with the government’s approach. It was just another attempt to dramatise the supposed costs of leaving. ‘The key message remains the same,’ says one cabinet minister.
Many of those involved in the Remain campaign believe that what saved Cameron in both the Scottish referendum and the general election was the core message. In the Scottish referendum, they argue, it was the drumbeat of warnings about the economic dangers of leaving — so-called ‘Project Fear’ — that delivered victory, not the Vow. And in the general election, they again believe it was the economic argument, not the warnings about the power the SNP would wield over a minority Labour government, that got Cameron home.
To their mind, it is the economy that wins elections and so they will stick to their emphasis on the economic risks of leaving. Combine that with the panic in the markets that some in Downing Street expect when the traders realise that Brexit really could happen, and that could be enough to hand them victory on 23 June.
But it would take a confident man to put his trust in this strategy alone. Months of warnings about the supposedly dire economic consequences of leaving the EU haven’t worked. Polling shows that only around a quarter of voters think they or their family will be personally worse off if we leave. One Remain-supporting cabinet minister believes that the campaign’s problem is that ‘for years, voters have been told that leaving the EU is mad and that only mad people want to do it. But now, they’re hearing the case for and it sounds quite sensible, and reasonable people are making it.’
Fundamentally, though, the Remain campaign’s problems go back to the renegotiation. Cameron rushed it, concluding it long before he had to and never really playing hardball with the rest of the EU. But the bigger problem was that other leaders were simply not prepared to countenance any substantive reform to freedom of movement, one of the four founding freedoms of the European project. This has left the Remain campaign with almost nothing to say on immigration. They are reduced to arguing that, in effect, uncontrolled EU immigration is the price Britain has to pay to be part of the single market. The failure of EU leaders to entertain any reform of freedom of movement was foolish, since Britain is far from the only country where EU migration is causing problems for national government and making voters question the legitimacy of the European Union. Its leaders should have understood that freedom of movement between six rich, western European countries was a very different political proposition to freedom of movement between 28 countries with vastly different standards of living.
Britain is by far the largest EU economy outside the eurozone. So, some arrangement could have been constructed that allowed non-eurozone states to have an emergency brake on immigration. This would, at least, have given the Remain campaign some way of responding to the public’s concerns about this issue.
Tellingly, Labour politicians — stung by the reaction they are getting on the doorstep — are now loudly demanding reforms to free-movement rules. Tom Watson, the party’s deputy leader, has said that this should be the priority for the UK when it holds the presidency of the EU in the second half of next year. But if Cameron couldn’t make progress on free movement in the renegotiation, why should Britain be able to do so once it has voted to stay in?
One other argument open to the Remain campaign, and one that several senior members use in private, is to say that you should vote to stay in because a vote to leave is irreversible. If Britain opts to stay, it could choose to leave at a later date. If the main figures in the Remain campaign were to start making this argument publicly, it would mean that this referendum could not be portrayed — as Cameron had hoped — as a vote that settles the issue for a generation. But, with the polls leaning towards Brexit, Remain can’t afford to worry about that any more.
Whatever happens next Thursday, leaving the EU has been transformed from a fringe issue into a mainstream position in British politics. A narrow Remain victory will not be the end of the matter. Britain leaving the EU is turning into a matter of when, not if.
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