David Cameron’s admission on the Marr Show this morning that the EU referendum might take place either a little later in 2016 than most expected or indeed in 2017 isn’t what has exercised eurosceptics. From their point of view, a later referendum will give them more time to set out their arguments for a change from the status quo. But what has annoyed them is the Prime Minister’s suggestion that the government was not drawing up contingency plans for Britain voting to leave the European Union. Marr asked him whether the government was prepared for the possibility of leaving the EU. Cameron replied:
‘I don't think that is the right answer, for the reasons I've given, but were that to be the answer we would have to do everything necessary to make that work. We put it in the manifesto, it's the public that will decide this, not the civil servants.’
Marr asked again whether the civil service were working on a contingency plan:
‘The civil service are working round the clock to support my renegotiation. It's not smoke and mirrors because there's a very serious negotiation agenda, this is not simple or easy - all of the four areas I'm talking about...all of those are difficult and the civil service is working to help me deliver those things. Now, if we fail to deliver them and we have to take a different stance, then that's a new situation. But I'm clear in politics what my goal is, my goal is renegotiation, referendum, secure Britain's place in a reformed EU.’
Shortly afterwards, on Pienaar’s Politics, David Davis said this was the most striking revelation from the interview, adding later on the Sunday Politics that it was ‘actually disgraceful’. Governments don’t like to admit to planning for something that they don’t want to happen, and there is an argument that the Leave campaigns should be the ones explaining what will happen. But those who want to leave the EU will also argue that Cameron is being complacent in not having contingency plans for a Brexit.
Cameron’s own contingency plan for his career in the event of a Brexit is also something he doesn’t want to talk about too much, either, not least because he doesn’t want to make the referendum about booting him out of Downing Street. That’s why he told Marr that he would stay on as Prime Minister even if Britain voted to leave. Eurosceptics know better than to suggest openly that he is wrong, but in private most of the Cabinet think he would have to step down if the result went the wrong way.