Andrew Grice / Jan 2016
David Cameron. Photo: European Union
Slowly but surely, David Cameron is putting in place the building blocks for a referendum in which the British public vote in favour of remaining in the EU. It is true that the opinion polls remain on a knife edge, with most suggesting the public will vote to stay In, and some showing the Out camp ahead.
Indeed, Cameron allies admit that “anything could happen” when voters start to focus on the referendum the Prime Minister intends to call this summer, possibly as early as June. But despite a European migration crisis that should have boosted the Out cause, the momentum appears to be with those who want to remain in the EU club.
The In team are broadly united and it will have a strong leader when Mr Cameron finally confirms what we already know: that he will recommend that Britain accepts the new deal he hopes to agree at the February summit of EU leaders.
In contrast, the Outers are suffering from the lack of a big beast at the top. Nigel Farage is their best known face but Conservative Eurosceptics are convinced that the Ukip leader would repel rather than attract the third of voters floating “in the middle” uncommitted to either In or Out camp. Eurosceptics are pleading with heavyweights such as Theresa May and Boris Johnson to lead the Out crusade but they are not taking the bait.
The Outers are arguing amongst themselves in public. Two rival groups, the Tory-dominated Vote Leave and Ukip-friendly Leave.EU, are vying for official recognition by the Electoral Commission, which would bring public funding. Efforts to broker a peace deal between these feuding factions have failed so far. Vote Leave raises the prospect of a second referendum in the hope of winning a provisional vote to leave this time. But Leave.EU points out that Mr Cameron has said people will get only one shot. A third group, Grassroots Out (Go), has now entered the picture. Although Eurosceptics insist they will “set out options” for life outside the EU, they have not yet answered the criticism that a vote to withdraw would be a leap into an uncertain future.
In another coup for Mr Cameron, Nick Herbert, a former minister who campaigned against the UK joining the euro as chief executive of Business for Sterling, has broken ranks with his old allies in Vote Leave to head a Conservatives for Reform in Europe group. He will back whatever new membership terms the Prime Minister gets in his renegotiation and, crucially, argue that an In vote is not one for the status quo. This is a sensible strategy since few Britons are starry-eyed about the EU. The In camp hopes that Mr Cameron’s new deal, perhaps boosted by a couple of last-minute “concessions” from his EU counterparts, might give waverers a reason (or excuse) to vote In and avoid a leap in the dark.
The Prime Minister is trusted by 40 per cent of people leaning towards the Out camp; conversely, only half of those leaning towards In trust Mr Farage. Although the public have less respect for politicians than they did at the 1975 referendum, the faces at the top will still matter.
Even some Tory opponents on Europe grudgingly admit that Mr Cameron is playing a clever game, not least by lowering expectations for his EU agreement. His announcement that Cabinet ministers would be free to campaign for an Out vote once his deal is done was less generous than it seemed; their freedom will have limits. If the Prime Minister wins, he holds the cards of the post-referendum reshuffle, and Eurosceptics fear that big beasts like Mrs May and Mr Johnson with an eye on the Tory succession will not want to be on the losing side in the referendum.
It is not over yet. The Outers will be able outspend the In campaign. Migration could yet tip the scales when the voters tune in as the referendum looms. But the In crowd have reasons to be cautiously optimistic.