Originally published at Brexit Central.
In the aftermath of the referendum, two myths have quickly taken root: that David Cameron made a reckless gamble when he called a vote on the EU and that Britain Stronger in Europe was a disunited rabble that fought a dreadful campaign.
These myths are dangerous because they fuel the calls for a second referendum. Europhiles tell themselves that if the vote was a gamble, another throw of the dice might produce a different result. And they imagine that a more focused and positive campaign for Remain could win the day.
Let me address these two myths in turn.
In his Bloomberg speech of January 2013, Mr Cameron promised a renegotiation with Brussels followed by an In/Out referendum. Commentators rushed to tell us that the speech was a reaction to the rise of UKIP and a way to plaster over the cracks in Tory unity. This confused the symptoms of Euroscepticism with the cause.
UKIP’s success reflected widespread anxiety in the country about the EU, while Conservative divisions had been opened by the refusal of successive British Governments to seek consent for the transfers of sovereignty to the EU by the treaties of Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon. Mr Cameron himself had reneged on his ‘cast iron guarantee’ of a referendum on Lisbon.
It’s also been suggested that he intended to drop the referendum pledge in any coalition negotiations with the Liberal Democrats after the 2015 general election. However, an analysis of Mr Cameron’s statements in the run up to the election shows that this is not true. The referendum was a red line for any coalition agreement. In any case, if he’d tried to ditch it, half the Conservative Party would have spontaneously combusted, including myself.
Far from being a short-term fix for his European troubles, Mr Cameron was thinking strategically. He realised that there had to be a reckoning to settle the question of Britain’s EU membership. And it would be far better for Europhiles if this reckoning took place at a time of his choosing and on his terms. The alternative was a referendum down the line under a Brexiteer Conservative leader using all the advantages of Government to ensure a vote for Leave.
Although the Cameron plan was a sound one for Europhiles, events got in the way. The Prime Minister assumed the EU would need a treaty to solve the Euro-crisis rather than kick the can down the road and condemn tens of millions to unemployment. He hoped Britain’s veto would strengthen his negotiating position. He also underestimated the pig-headedness of his fellow heads of Government in February 2016 when they scuppered his efforts to get a deal he could sell to the British people.
But I would argue that the failure of the renegotiation was a mistake by the EU rather than Mr Cameron, whose only error was to misjudge the EU’s capacity for self-harm.
The second myth concerns the referendum campaign itself. Brussels had dealt Europhiles a very weak hand, but I believe they played it as effectively as they could. For all the criticism of Project Fear, Remain had no choice but to ramp up the scare tactics. Europhiles like former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan might wistfully write that they should have fought a more positive campaign.
But, honestly, what was the optimistic message about the EU supposed to be? Lauding the alleged benefits of immigration was never going to work and Remain knew it was essential to keep the European Commission’s ambitions for more integration under wraps. When the EU took credit for peace in Europe or increasing prosperity, the British just chuckled at its lack of self-awareness.
So Project Fear was Remain’s only viable strategy, and if it was to work, it had to be full-on. One advantage for Remain was that it didn’t need to make any predictions about what would happen if it won. Unlike a political party promising the earth at an election, Remain’s warnings would only be tested if they lost, so they could really push the boat out on the doom-mongering. Of course, Leave won and all those predictions are coming home to roost for the likes of the OECD and HM Treasury. However, I doubt either Mr Cameron or even George Osborne are very bothered about that.
That is not to say Matthew Elliott’s fantastic Vote Leave didn’t matter. The point of a political campaign is not really to win the argument. Rather, it must identify its supporters and motivate them to get to the polling station on the big day. Vote Leave did that brilliantly.
The important point is that the referendum was not won because of narrow tactical concerns, mistakes made by Mr Cameron or Britain Stronger in Europe, or even because Leave voters were just protesting and didn’t mean to win. All these erroneous excuses have been made by Europhiles since 23rd June.
Leave triumphed because it is the settled will of the British people that they do not wish their country to be part of the European Union. Given that fact, Remain did as well as they could have done by pushing us so close. David Cameron deserves credit from Europhiles for giving Remain the best possible chance.