Eurosceptics could hardly have asked for more favourable conditions for a referendum. After barely surviving a financial crisis, the European Union has been overwhelmed by an immigration crisis — one made much worse by its failure to control its own borders. The European Commission seems determined to make itself even more unpopular in Britain, and is considering whether VAT should be levied on food and children’s clothes. At a time of righteous anger at sweetheart tax deals for multinational corporations, the man who bears more responsibility for these than anyone else in Europe is its president, the former Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Then came David Cameron’s renegotiation. After months in the kitchen, Cameron has come up with the political equivalent of nouvelle cuisine: a tiny, disappointing dish served up with a big fanfare. He has nothing, for example, on the Common Agricultural Policy, or the fisheries policy that has inflicted such misery on British seaside towns. When he proposed the referendum three years ago, he spoke of a fundamental recasting of Britain’s relationship with the EU. This has been abandoned. Donald Tusk, president of the EU Council, confirmed after unveiling the proposed deal that the principles of the EU would not be altered by it.
So this ought to be the moment of Eurosceptic triumph. Instead, the movement is in chaos. No national figure has emerged to make the case for leaving. There was, once, much talk of a Sir James Dyson type industrialist making the case for Britain to boldly break out on its own. But so far this has come to naught — and time is ticking by. Eurosceptics are, though, confident of securing the support of at least one cabinet minister who is not considered a usual suspect.
There are plenty of political figures involved in the ‘out’ campaign. But too many seem more interested in squabbling among themselves than in taking the fight to the ‘in’ campaign. Meanwhile the bookmakers and opinion polls give ‘in’ a clear lead. It has, on average, a six-point advantage and was ahead by 18 points in one recent telephone poll. These numbers are particularly dire when you consider that for the ‘change proposition’ in a referendum to win (‘out’ in this case), it normally needs to be ten points ahead before the campaign starts.
So David Cameron’s famous good luck has not yet run out. The absence of an undisputed big beast to front the campaign has made too many Eurosceptics think it ought to be them. Veterans believe that their time in the trenches entitles them to lead the charge. Those who enjoy the sound of their own voice believe that if only the country could hear them debate David Cameron on television then the scales would drop from the public’s eyes.
Meanwhile, many in Ukip see the referendum as more about advancing their own party’s interest than anything else. Nigel Farage’s party has been a distinctly mixed blessing for the Eurosceptic cause. To be sure, it is capable of speaking to voters in places where traditional, sovereignty-focused Euroscepticism has little purchase. It has yoked together immigration and the EU in the public’s mind. But the way it has done this has created problems. Many other respected public figures refuse to join in, or donate to, a campaign that is too Farage-dominated. Some in Ukip seem to relish this. They dream of being the Donald Trumps of British politics. Much of the tension between Douglas Carswell, Ukip’s only MP, and the party leader-ship is because the clique around Farage are more interested in using the referendum to boost support for Ukip at the next general election than they are in actually winning it. The theory goes that if Ukip is the only party campaigning to leave and its politicians dominate the campaign, then it could scoop up the ‘out’ vote at the next election — just as the SNP won the -support of nearly all ‘yes’ voters after its defeat in the Scottish referendum.
There is an even bigger problem for the ‘out’ campaign though, which is that no one can picture what ‘out’ would look like. This is, of course, the beauty of Brexit: it would be down to Britain to decide the kind of -country it wanted to be. But to up-end the status quo, a risk-averse electorate needs some sort of vision of Britain’s future outside the EU.
There is no agreement about this between Eurosceptics. The disputes between policy experts as to which Brexit model is best -(Norway? Switzerland? Turkey? World Trade Organisation rules?) make the debates of the early church seem easy to follow.
In the Scottish referendum, Alex Salmond ultimately lost because he couldn’t give -voters a reassuring picture of what independence would mean. But even he had answers, albeit of dubious plausibility. This underlines one of Euroscepticism’s great strategic mistakes: to prioritise the referendum without first working out how to win it. The referendum became the focus because it was the lowest common denominator: Eurosceptics of whatever stripe could agree that the public should have their say. But it was always going to be harder to win a straight in/out vote than a referendum on an individual treaty. As the Danes, the Irish, the Dutch, and the French have all demonstrated, individual treaties can be rejected without any danger. Indeed, the EU often comes back with concessions afterwards. But an in/out vote seems a different matter, a binary choice. That’s why the arch- Europhile Peter Mandelson has been so keen on an in/out vote for so long. (One suspects, though, that Brussels would return almost immediately with a slew of concessions if Britain did vote to leave in this referendum.)
Since Cameron returned to office, Eurosceptics have concentrated their energies on pressuring him to let his ministers campaign for ‘out’. The hope was that this would lead to a flood of cabinet members doing so. Instead, it has been a trickle — and Downing Street radiates confidence that only four or five members of the cabinet will ultimately go against the Prime Minister: Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers, John Whittingdale and Priti Patel. Theresa May, who would have been the biggest -cabinet catch for ‘out’, has indicated that she will back staying in, and in the struggle between Michael Gove’s Eurosceptic convictions and his personal dislike of upsetting Cameron and Osborne, the latter is currently on top.
In the end, the suspension of collective responsibility has actually helped Cameron. He can pretend he’s been broad-minded while stopping the other lot from campaigning, because the ministers’ licence to disagree only begins once the deal has been signed off at the EU Council in two weeks. Between now and then, the Prime Minister will be busy selling his deal to the public and getting FTSE chief executives to back it.
Even when ministers are freed to campaign, they will be constrained by the fact that they are still members of the government. One cabinet member, an ‘out’er, is mulling a code of conduct for ministers: no debating each other directly, no impugning of the Prime Minister’s integrity and no personal attacks. This ‘play nicely’ manifesto will make it that much easier to put the Tory party back together again after the referendum. But, as another cabinet ‘out’er complains, it would also mean that Cameron’s side could keep many sceptics off the air just by putting up a minister themselves.
The Prime Minister should enjoy his position of relative power while it still lasts. Should Britain vote to remain in the EU, its position in Brussels will be far weaker. Gone will be the leverage that came from the sense that this country was only ever a summit or two from storming out. No longer will British prime ministers be able to object to proposals by saying that their Eurosceptic electorate simply won’t wear it. Come off it, EU leaders and Eurocrats will say: your country has just voted to stay in the EU, warts and all. Britain’s bluff will have been called.
Compounding this problem will be that the rest of Europe will feel that Britain owes it one — that they have helped Cameron out with his little local difficulty and now want something in return. Already, ministers in other EU governments are planning to call in some favours. One has already made clear to The Spectator that once this referendum is done, Britain will be expected to take in our ‘share’ of the hundreds of thousands of refugees waiting to be settled in Europe.
The renegotiation has laid bare just how much sovereignty has already been handed over. It was hard not to feel one’s hackles rising as Cameron crisscrossed Europe trying to get permission for his welfare changes. Do we really want the Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who holds distinctly unsavoury views, deciding what Britain can and cannot do with its benefits system? The renegotiation leaves untouched many of the EU policies that have done the most harm. The Common Agricultural Policy is not only inefficient but immoral, hurting farmers in some of the poorest countries in the world. The EU financial merry-go-round is still intact, too. Britain will still send money to the EU, only for Brussels to then send some of it back to this country’s poorest regions.
The paucity of the case for staying in is illustrated by the quality of some of the arguments that the ‘in’ campaign has been making in recent weeks. They reflect a bread-and-circuses mentality that would make a Roman aedile blush. We have been told that the quality of Premier League football would decline if we left the EU because European players wouldn’t be able to get work permits and that we will only be able to watch iPlayer abroad if we stay in the EU. More seriously, voters have been told that the average consumer saves £450 a year because of the EU — a claim that can be sourced to an American study of how prices have been kept down by globalisation.
The arguments for Brexit are all there, waiting for someone persuasive to marshal them. Events could also intervene. Cameron and Osborne are so keen to get this vote over as soon as possible because both know how volatile the situation is. A repeat of last summer’s migrant crisis, another ‘Cologne’ or the eurozone going to the brink again could sway public opinion towards quitting the EU.
Yet at the moment Britain is sleepwalking into an ever more centralised EU, and the painful truth is that Euroscepticism is not ready for the confrontation that it has so long agitated for. With the government intent on a June referendum, the ‘out’ campaign will have a few months to do the work of years. If it cannot do that, then Britain will stay in the European Union. More than that, voters will have ratified the transformation from the European Economic Community that we joined in 1973 to the imperial institution that the European Union is today.