I suppose David Cameron had little choice but to offer a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. How else could he have held his party together? Indeed, it is possible that he owes some part of his small majority to that promise.
Nevertheless, it will all end badly. I think there is no plausible scenario in which it can end well for Cameron. Indeed, it is entirely possible that having begun this parliament with a majority he – or, rather, his successor – will end it leading a minority administration.
The most important thing to remember is that perhaps a quarter of his backbenchers actually want the Prime Minister to fail. They have no interest in his cockamamie renegotation strategy. Indeed, from their perspective, the feebler the “deal” Cameron strikes the better. There are no conceivable circumstances in which they can be persuaded to endorse the Prime Minister’s line. The renegotiation is, as far as they are concerned, a pointless piece of posturing. Nothing Cameron beings back from Berlin (or Brussels) will be enough. They want out. They will always want out. Their minds will never change. They believe the Prime Minister is betraying the British national interest.
And, of course, in terms of the renegotiation they are, in large part, correct. It is a fig-leaf. It is lipstick on a pig. It is not a serious attempt at a serious change in the terms of Britain’s membership of the European Union. It is designed to give the appearance of change without actually delivering real change. But so long as Cameron can claim, however dubiously, to have battled and won a “good deal for Britain” he can come home and recommend a Yes vote in the referendum. Does anyone imagine circumstances in which he would do something different?
Of course not. Because, as is obvious, the Prime Minister can live with the status quo. If he could not he would have been a member of the Better Off Out brigade. Current arrangements may, in Cameron’s view, be unsatisfactory but they are hardly intolerable. Which is just as well since future arrangements are most unlikely to be very different from current arrangements.
So the renegotiation strategy is only a ploy and, again, we know what its outcome will be. And how it will be received. The weakness of Cameron’s position vis a vis his party is confirmed by his insistence that ministers will have to choose between their jobs and their hearts.
Not that the referendum can be expected to settle anything anyway. The irreconcilables are just that. There is nothing that can be done to persuade them that the european question is settled once and for all. They can only be pacified by Brexit. And since Cameron, quite plainly, has no desire for Brexit it follows they cannot be satisfied by Cameron.
Moreover, simply holding the referendum increases the salience of the european question. It becomes a defining, pivotal, point in our politics. How you feel, think, and vote on europe will dictate how you feel, think and vote on other matters too. It is the base upon which all else is built and it doesn’t matter whether you think this zealotry a demonstration of admirable principle or vein-popping monomania.
Assume, just for the sake of argument, that Cameron prevails and Britain votes to stay in, what happens next? It seems entirely possible that a quarter of Tory MPs and perhaps as many as a third of Tory voters will have been disappointed and defeated by their own notional leader. Do they simply shut up, accept the verdict, and return to the fold? Some may; many others will not.
How many will defect to UKIP? Quite a few, I should think. Enough, quite possibly, to leave the Tories as a minority government in this parliament and, more importantly, to make it extremely difficult, as matters stand, for the Conservatives to win a majority at the next election.
As legacies go, presiding over a historic split in the Tory party is quite something. To do so without even settling the central issue at hand is also quite something. Yet this is what Cameron risks; this in fact is what he all but promises. The Tory party cannot simultaneously be in favour of Britain being a member of the European Union and in favour of leaving it. These horses must eventually gallop in different directions.
Even if he wins, Cameron will lose. If nothing else, this is an interesting approach to party management and the national interest. Perhaps this reckoning cannot be avoided any longer – there’s nothing grubby or ignoble about testing the issue in a referendum – but it is surpassingly difficult to see how this can possibly end well for the Prime Minister, his reputation or his place in history. Cameron is setting himself up to fail; sawing off his own foot, the better to run in the future.