James Forsyth James Forsyth

Cameron’s heading for a hollow victory

In winning the vote, he could well lose his party

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[/audioplayer]‘Nothing except a battle lost can be half as melancholy as a battle won,’ wrote the Duke of Wellington after Waterloo. David Cameron may well feel the same about referendums on 24 June. The EU debate is already taking a toll on the Tory party and his premiership. While defeat would be disastrous for him, even victory will come at a heavy political cost.

Victory is, for now, still the most likely outcome. Barring a dramatic worsening of the migrant crisis or another eurozone emergency, the uncertainty inherent in leaving the EU will probably mean that most British voters will choose to maintain the status quo. But in winning the referendum, Cameron could well lose his party.

He had always believed that the number of outright leavers in the Tory fold was relatively small. At the start of the year, No. 10 thought that both Michael Gove and Boris Johnson would be onside. They thought the number of MPs backing ‘leave’ would be in double, not triple, figures. But now Cameron finds both Gove and Johnson taking on frontline roles in a ‘leave’ campaign supported by close to half of his MPs and most of the party’s activists.

The Conservative leadership has long hoped that the party could be put back together after the referendum. The idea was that the consoling prospect of a decade in power if the party stayed united would overcome the bitterness of the EU debate. But the blue-on-blue attacks are now increasingly vicious, and will not easily be forgotten. In the last few days George Osborne has slammed Leavers as ‘economically illiterate’, Boris Johnson has accused David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May of misleading voters about immigration, and Osborne’s warning that leaving the EU would cost households thousands of pounds has been rubbished in the most personal terms by Brexit-supporting backbenchers.

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