(note: this is a counterfactual – just in case you’re reading it after October 2015!)
It is Wednesday 21st November 2015, and David Cameron has called a press conference at Downing Street. With his face going rather puce, the anger showing in the edge to his voice, he delivers the news that pro-EU campaigners in the UK had feared: that he has changed his mind and switched to the NO side in Britain’s in-or-out of the EU referendum.
The final straw had been the European Council of 15th/16th October 2015 in Brussels. Cameron had announced the referendum would take place in September 2016 just a few weeks after his May 7th election victory, yet he had then prevaricated when it came to making concrete demands about the UK’s renegotiation of its EU membership since the 25th/26th June 2015 European Council, and at the October summit overplayed his hand. A demand for fundamental changes to EU freedom of movement had been rejected by the other 27 Heads of State and Government, and Cameron stormed out of negotiations at 1am and had refused to speak to the press. Sources close to the UK Permanent Representation (UKRep) had told the Financial Times that Cameron had been briefed on what the other Member States would accept, but had persevered regardless.
European Council President Donald Tusk, looking tetchy and strained, had told the cameras lined up in Brussels that negotiations had been “difficult” but had refused to be drawn on what should happen. Merkel, Hollande and Renzi in their separate press conferences gave very similar messages. No country should be allowed to blackmail the rest of the EU they said.
The FTSE opened 200 points lower on Monday 19th October, and in the hours before Cameron’s announcement hit its lowest point in five years.
(end of counterfactual)
OK, so can you imagine this? I can, and something like it happening sometime in the next 6 months should not be discounted.
Cameron has form on this – see his behaviour when wielding a ‘veto’ on 2011 (but not stopping the rest of the EU advancing anyway), and when Cameron was outvoted 26-2 on the appointment of Jean Claude Juncker as Commission President. In both cases Cameron had ways out before being forced into a corner, and was briefed about what was going to happen, but proceeded nevertheless. His flashes of impulsive, bullying anger led to him being labelled Flashman.
I also think Cameron wants the UK to stay in the EU as a result of pure pragmatism – there is no conviction, no belief in this issue for him. Britain ought to stay more because the alternative is worse, and not because the EU is – in his eyes – anything worth fighting for. It is for this reason that I do not think it is inconceivable for his position to change.
What would then happen to the pro-EU side if Cameron switched? In the short term it would be hell – there would be genuine panic (not least in the markets, and in the EU institutions) that the UK would leave. But if it were handled sensibly, and framed in a way that Cameron had behaved irresponsibly, it could be the unifying factor the pro-EU side would need. Keeping the UK in against Cameron’s wishes would finish him and his government, politically, and demonstrate that the backbenches of the Tory party should not be allowed to dictate the UK’s EU policy. The Labour Party – that ought to be rebounding by autumn 2015 anyway – would be unified in backing Britain in the EU and opposing Cameron.
So Cameron switching is a risk, yes, but it would not be insurmountable. The other 27 EU Member States, and the European Commission, need to bear this in mind when trying to negotiate with Cameron. That he may switch sides is not inconceivable, but if he does it is not a foregone conclusion that he would win the country round to his changed view.