What if Cameron actually doesn’t know what he’s doing in the referendum campaign?

After the initial shock of the Tory victory in May, and the dawning realisation that the UK’s in-or-out of the EU referendum will indeed happen, a sort of calm consensus among pro-EU contacts of mine in the UK formed in the early summer. Of course Cameron wants the UK to stay in the EU these friends of mine stated, and a series of polls after the general election showed solid leads for the Yes side. The Farage unresignation fiasco, and UKIP picking up just a solitary seat in the House of Commons, were also reassuring signs. Cameron looked like a winner in the early summer and – as a fascinating poll by British Future underlined [PDF], the Prime Minister is trusted by wavering voters on the EU question and hence needs to play a central role in the referendum.

But then things have started to go wrong.

First Cameron conceded that the referendum would not take place on 5th May 2016, the same day as elections in Scotland, Wales and London. While there are good reasons to not go for the same day, doing so would nevertheless have boosted turnout. After the flurry of discussion about the date of the referendum before the summer, as it stands we still do not know when it will be – referendum theory would indicate that Cameron ought to call it as early as possible to increase his chances of winning it.

Then Cameron stated his ministers would have to back the government in the referendum, and then U-turned, saying that, actually, no, they would get a free vote. The impression is that even those in his cabinet are not fully on his side and that Cameron thought he had more leverage over them than he actually did.

Next came the decision about the mandate in the referendum – 16 and 17 year olds, and EU citizens in the UK are excluded entirely, and UK nationals resident more than 15 years abroad are also denied the right to vote. That this decision pleased both Daniel Hannan and John Redwood tells you all you need to know.

Then last week Cameron agreed with the Electoral Commission to change the wording of the question – giving ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ as the options, rather than ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I am unsure as to how much impact this will have, but why I wonder was the Electoral Commission not consulted on this from the start? This looks administratively inept at the very least.

A poll this week also puts the No side ahead for the first time, and adds the interesting finding that 1/5 of people who say they are Yes voters say they might change their mind if the migration crisis worsens. This shows how open Cameron is to changes in events. In the meantime Cameron’s refusal to countenance burden sharing in the EU’s refugee crisis has won him few friends in Brussels, and his hard line rhetoric over Calais and disruption to the Channel Tunnel has also further lowered his bargaining capital.

Then today the government suffered a Commons defeat over the purdah rules for the referendum campaign – essentially what government ministers will and will not be allowed to say and do in the month before the referendum. The No camp on the Tory side were furious at the rules proposed by Cameron and the Labour Party joined them to defeat the government – once again this looks like poor management and tactics from Cameron.

Further an intriguing news story today indicates that Cameron is trying to get pro-EU businesses to keep their mouths shut until his renegotiation is complete. However what Cameron can even demand, and actually get, remains very open – Treaty Change by 2017 is for sure out of the question though, so he will have to live with some sort of protocol. The French government for sure does not know what the UK wants. It even emerged this week that his much-vaunted relationship with Angela Merkel is perhaps not quite what he wants us to think it is.

What then does all this mean? Far from leading this from the front, it seems Cameron is already being blown well off course by events and miscalculations. With at least 6 months until the referendum, and possibly as many as 18 months more, where will the Yes side be if things go on like this?

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  1. A (bad) path from the referendum? | Politics @ Surrey

    […] with the Tory sceptic hardcore doesn’t instil any great confidence. Jon Worth’s very nice piece is well worth a read on this, but my impression was that his question in its title had the obvious […]

  2. Nick Crosby

    Jon, agree with pretty much all of this post.
    From conversations with those who know the Tory party well, one point that I had not sufficiently recognised, was the degree to which this ‘renegotiation’ is now almost entirely about internal Tory party management. So the UK could leave the EU, with all that this implies, due to the crazies like Hannan having infected the Conservatives.
    Secondly, this links to the abject failure / weakness of Tory moderates over many years to ‘have it out’ with the anti’s. They are often too nice or too reasonable; or in some cases not invested enough in the issue to care. Cameron’s chief of staff might fit this bill. He should be fighting the sceps and urging pro’s to get out. Instead he is urging ‘shut up and trust the PM’ to UK business etc…That is fatal.
    Third, with the Labour Party and Unions now in a period of turmoil over leadership etc. this only weakens Pro voices and positions.
    My growing conclusion is that no ‘Establishment’ institution- political party, government, BBC etc. will be capable of or interested in or leading this Referendum and so citizens must take this on and make them care and force them to move. If Pat Cox could be lent to the Pro Campaign that would also be good….