Win or lose the EU referendum, Cameron has failed test of leadership

Alex Kane
Alex Kane
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What has surprised me most about the referendum has been the complete pig’s ear the Remain camp has made of what should have been a reasonably easy pitch.

All they had to do was sum up the collective benefits and values of 43 years’ membership of the EU; a membership that, according to the champions and cheerleaders, has done just about everything other than usher in the Second Coming.

And yet they haven’t been able to do that. Instead, they’ve bullied, hectored, lectured and tried to scare the pants off us. George Osborne has used the Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang as his role model, while David Cameron built the entire campaign around the mantra that, “you can’t win if you’re not in”.

Gordon Brown tried the more nuanced line that the “UK should be leading the EU, not leaving the EU,” yet failed to explain how you can lead from a position based on opt outs, red lines, pretend isolationism and anti-integration ‘guarantees’ that don’t have the strength of national, let alone EU law behind them.

Remain admits that the EU needs reformed: but they’ve been saying that since the 1975 referendum. Every prime minister since Harold Wilson has had to trot off to Brussels to cut some sort of deal. David Cameron did it a few months ago, yet promises more reform. He knows that ‘reform’ will never derail the EU project and he knows that Germany and France will continue to press for further expansion, integration and monetary/fiscal union.

He has put himself in an absurd position: he is trying to sell the merits of a cooperative, collective EU by insisting that he wants to reform it and distance the UK from the aspects he doesn’t like.

That’s a car crash relationship, because it’s a stance that ensures that the UK will always be at odds with the EU integrationist elite. As the EU expands – and it is an article of faith that it can never contract – more and more countries will adopt the euro, get sucked into fiscal/budgetary union and agree on foreign policy and relationships with other countries and power blocs.

What will the UK do? Does anyone in the Remain camp actually believe that we’ll be able to ignore what we don’t like and do our own thing? No: we will be put under intolerable pressure to buy in, or find ourselves kicked out when the decision is made – as it could be – to dump us.

From my perspective the ‘immigration issue’ was always a bit of a distraction. Yet it was Cameron who put it centre stage in the 2010 general election when he pledged to ‘reduce net migration to less than 100,000 a year’. Instead, it has almost trebled since then.

Instead of setting out the cultural and economic benefits of the numbers involved he has allowed himself to get dragged into a non-winnable debate about how he would contain and then decrease the numbers. In other words, and in the same way that he did with the EU ‘super state’ debate, he has been pushed on to the defensive: and that’s a bad place to be for a man who is despised by about half of his party.

His strongest card should have been the economic one, but that was shredded when the spotlight fell on an EU knee deep in austerity, bailouts, unemployment, sweeping cuts to welfare provision and one euro crisis after another. And nor was he helped by the fact that the economists, banking experts and business gurus who have been supporting him were peculiarly blind when it came to predicting what was happening on the economic front in 2005/6 onwards; who sang the praises of the euro in the late 1990s; and who were at the top of the queue making the case for taxpayers being lumbered with the bill for ‘rescuing’ the very banks, building societies and financial institutions which had raided their savings and pension funds and destroyed their employment opportunities and standard of living.

That’s how Cameron went from a predicted comfortable margin of victory a few months ago to a potentially touch-and-go result on Thursday (although my instinct is still that Remain will win, albeit not convincingly). The Economist sums it up well: “Such has been Britain’s EU referendum. David Cameron first promised the vote in 2013, spooked by Ukip’s success in local elections and importuned by Ukip-inclined MPs on his Conservative benches. The result has been an unedifying campaign that has been bolstered by Mr Farage and carried his imprint. What might have been a hard-nosed debate about Britain’s future, about the pros and cons of EU membership, has turned into a poisonous row about the merits of what is ultimately Mr Farage’s view of England.”

This is Cameron’s fault – although Johnson and Gove shouldn’t have allowed Ukip to set the agenda, either. Cameron should have had a vision for the future to counter the vision of others. He should have addressed the realities about immigration, integration and economics. He should have inspired rather than instilled fear. He should never have allowed the debate to be both brutalised and dictated by others.

The present mess is a failure of his leadership: a failure to extol what he supposedly holds dear. Whatever the result, he is, politically and electorally, toast: and the EU question still won’t be resolved. He deserves to lose. The United Kingdom deserves a new direction.