Are there any circumstances where David Cameron could decide to campaign for the UK to leave the EU? Well yes, according to a senior source close to one of the campaigns and I tend to agree but for different reasons than those provided. Popular opinion is currently that the Prime Minister is a committed europhile who will do anything to secure an agreement in his so-called renegotiation with EU partners. They say his list of demands has been made deliberately trivial to secure an easy agreement which he can then sell to the British people to win the referendum for the Remain side.
However, there are also those of us who think there is a cleverer strategy at play here which will be revealed once the current political theatre has achieved its purpose of providing a smokescreen. This plan would see David Cameron eventually announce a new deal for the UK offering Associate Membership of the EU. This status would be sealed by a new EU Treaty which would see the eurozone states forge a much closer political union with others, like the UK, on the periphery. Whilst it would undoubtedly be hyped as a special arrangement, probably referred to as the British Model, in reality it would leave the UK in its current situation, still subject to the same disadvantages of EU membership but in a far weaker position on the periphery. It would be sold as a new arrangement but would actually be a solution securing the status quo. It would not, in popular parlance, be Brexit and it would not allow the UK to realise any of the benefits of leaving or joining a looser trading arrangement like EFTA. This hidden strategy is explained in detail by the Bruges Group in this excellent paper here. Worryingly, their analysis envisages that even if there was a vote to Leave, it would still result in Associate Membership being offered as the only choice in a follow up referendum. This highlights one of the fundamental weaknesses of the current Leave campaigns which are seemingly unable to offer an alternative Brexit model and which instead make vague references to an undefined future bilateral agreement that would hopefully be secured after a further negotiation. The choice is thus about staying in the EU under the Prime Minister’s arrangements or something undefined. This leaves the Leave side wide open to scaremongering by the Remain side who will rely on voter fear, uncertainty and aversion to risk during their campaign.
Whilst I do agree with the Bruges Group that Associate Membership is the likely offering, I wonder if there is an even more complex and multi-layered approach to David Cameron’s strategy. My source tells me that Cameron is mildly eurosceptic but he felt in the early stages of his premiership that it was unnecessary to expend much energy and political capital on the EU issue. I am told that Cameron believes it is, on balance, in the UK’s interest to be part of the single market but finds the political process tiresome and unnecessary. That said, my source also says the Prime Minister does not like to be taken for a fool, and like a friendly grandfather provoked beyond reason by a petulant child, he could lash out at EU colleagues if they don’t cave in to his demands or seemingly humiliate him. In these circumstances, my source could see the PM returning home from Brussels and campaigning to leave. Now, the problem with political sources is that they often superimpose their own agenda or, more charitably, their hopes on their analysis of a situation. In this case, I think the source could see Cameron on the Leave side as a winning asset and he was therefore applying a large dose of hopium to his thoughts. However, his remarks did set me thinking about Cameron’s motivations.
One thing that marks most national leaders is that they tend to start doing things to ‘secure their legacy’ especially when they have had more than one term in office. In many cases this includes forays into foreign policy and global affairs. In David Cameron’s case, the referendum is likely to mark the end of his premiership, and the outcome of the poll will forever define his legacy rather than the last years of domestic politics which in historical terms have been relatively unremarkable with the exception perhaps of the Scottish Referendum. In political terms, a vote to leave could be of monumental importance constitutionally but it could also have huge geo-strategic and governance implications for the EU, Europe and to some extent the world. With this in mind, I believe that for Cameron, the most important factor, above anything else, is that he is associated with the winning side of the referendum even if that turns out to be a vote to Leave. Bearing in mind the Bruges paper, even a win for the Leave camp could still result in Cameron’s preferred outcome of Associate membership. He could therefore attach himself to a winning Leave campaign and rely on his successor to secure Associate Membership. So, whilst Cameron would probably prefer to avoid the diplomatic fallout of a volte-face to the Leave side, his legacy is uppermost. He is likely to see which way the wind is blowing (like many of his Conservative MPs) and then position himself accordingly especially if it seems his opinion is being marginalised and overtaken by events. If Leave really starts to make headway expect the renegotiation talks to seemingly stall and for dark mutterings to emerge about the duplicity of our EU partners. The announcement could then take the form of an embattled Prime Minister addressing the country and telling it that there is no option but to vote to leave.
So, returning to my question. Yes, Cameron could campaign to leave if he felt he was in danger of being on the losing side. I would accept that it is an unlikely prospect because under the present campaigning it all seems to be heading towards his preferred option of a Remain win along with Associated Membership. That said, never underestimate the power of political hubris, self-interest and opportunism to trump high principle. Importantly for Leavers, the Prime Minister’s endorsement does not mean that he would be an asset to the Leave campaign. The various Leave campaigns need to wake up to the Bruges Group paper. The only counter is to offer an alternative brexit model to voters (in my view membership of EFTA) so that the poll is about competing visions of Europe rather than the Prime Minister’s recommendation. To achieve this the main campaigns need to unify and campaign under one banner and message. There needs to be a defined brexit model. Otherwise, The Bruges Group Catch 22 situation will prevail and we will never escape this madness. Please lobby your campaign leadership accordingly.