Will David Cameron pull his pro-EU punches to help the Tories reunite?

After the opening skirmishes the ‘inners’ are winning on the economy and the ‘outers’ on immigration

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

If Downing Street’s calculations are correct, next week will see politics begin to return to normal. We’ll all move on from talking about Boris Johnson and Brexit and instead start fretting about the budget and pensions: the first phase of this four-month referendum campaign will be over. The two sides will regroup and try to work out what they can take from these initial skirmishes.

One lesson from the first weeks of the campaign is that the ‘in’ side have the advantage when the debate is on the economy. There are simply too many unanswered question and uncertainties for ‘out’. This is why the No. 10 barrage, which has taken ruthless advantage of its control of the government’s research and communications machine, has concentrated on this aspect of EU membership.

The economic argument also plays to Cameron and Osborne’s strengths. The election showed that voters trusted them with the economy, preferring the continuity they were offering to the change that Ed Miliband proposed. The ‘in’ campaign hopes that it can push economic security up the agenda and drive voters towards the reassuring figure of the Prime Minister. As one influential figure on the ‘in’ side puts it: ‘Our polling shows that the majority of peoples’ default position is that they want the economic benefits of staying in.’ There is, though, some concern on the ‘in’ campaign that it has not yet hit upon an economic issue with the resonance that the currency question had in the Scottish referendum.


However, when the focus has been on immigration, ‘out’ has had the better of things. Nothing in Cameron’s EU deal will significantly reduce immigration to Britain — there is, therefore, no chance of the Prime Minister fulfilling his aspiration to reduce net migration to under 100,000. Immigration has risen to 323,000 a year. This is particularly problematic for Cameron. A post-election poll by Lynton Crosby, the Australian political strategist who masterminded the Tories’ election victory, showed that the commitment to control immigration was the Tory policy that their voters remembered most.

Vote Leave is now pitch-perfect on the immigration issue. Their campaign stresses that they are not opposed to immigration but that Britain must have control over who comes into this country. As Chris Grayling put it to me when I interviewed him last week: ‘We absolutely have to have the ability to set limits on the number of people coming to work here. No one is saying that there will be no migration, but we need the ability to set limits. There is nothing in our current relationship, even post-renegotiation, with the European Union that allows us to do that.’

What alarms several influential figures who are working to keep Britain in the EU is how quickly voters can change their mind on the European question. Their great worry is that some incident could quickly shift opinion in favour of leaving. New footage of migrants breaking through border crossings, or Turkish threats to put migrants on buses to Europe underlines these concerns. If migration is the dominant issue in the run-up to the referendum, then ‘out’ could upset the odds and triumph.

At the moment, though, the ‘in’ camp remains the firm favourite. Cameron’s effort to highlight the risks of leaving might be crude, but it has been effective in framing the debate. This is why ‘out’ is now pushing the risks of staying in. Grayling warns that the EU is still heading in a direction that Britain does not want to go. ‘I have in my mind a map of the European Union in ten years’ time’, he tells me, ‘where if you colour the Eurozone blue and then see what’s left — you have a little area around the United Kingdom and you perhaps have Denmark. We end up being fringe players in a set of institutions which have completely different goals to us and I cannot see in that situation how our international interest remains on anybody’s agenda.’

These past few weeks have highlighted one dilemma that Cameron will have to resolve before the real campaign starts. Does he want to go all-out to win the referendum, or pull his punches in hope of reunifying his party afterwards? If he opts for the latter, he will have to make clear that he respects intellectually those arguing for Brexit. He will also need to avoid associating himself with some of the sillier arguments being pumped out by the pro-EU lobby. Carolyn McCall, chief executive of EasyJet, recently suggested that Brexit would mean the end of cheap air travel — a bizarre intervention that has gone down particularly badly with Tory MPs. When I asked Grayling about her, he said: ‘I would hope that none of us as senior Conservatives, senior members of the government, would put across views that are patently absurd.’

But the bigger challenge facing the ‘out’ campaign is how to find a way of making a vote to leave look like less of a risk. I understand that senior Conservative ‘outers’ are considering a declaration during the campaign that they would support a referendum on the terms of the exit deal.

The thinking behind this is that it would reassure the public that if the deal being offered were truly dire, they would have the chance to say no. But it is not quite clear what would happen if the terms of exit were given the thumbs down by the voters. For if Article 50 — the legal process by which a state can leave the European Union — were to be invoked, Britain’s previous status would not be available. This, perhaps, explains why some on the ‘out’ side are so quick to point out that Article 50 would not have to be invoked immediately in the event of a vote to leave.

As always in campaigns, events will dictate what happens. News that you wouldn’t have thought political will suddenly become part of the debate about the role of the EU—for good or ill—in our national life. The challenge for the two campaigns will be to be adapt to a rapidly changing environment.


EU-pressureJoin The Spectator for an evening debate chaired by Andrew Neil:
Should Britain leave the EU?
26 April 2016 | London Palladium, Argyll Street, W1F 7TF
Book now

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Show comments
  • hobspawn

    The economic argument is simple. (1) The EU is the only shrinking trade bloc in the world. (2) Greece. (3) Youth unemployment. (4) Mass immigration at great economic cost despite what the Marxian PPE text-books said. (5) A doomed currency.

    Somehow that is supposed to look like future economic security.

    Remains rot, leaves grow.

    • LostLeonardo

      Remains rot, leaves grow. I think I shall have to steal that!

      • hobspawn

        Words are designed for re-use. Copying isn’t stealing. Say it loud, say it often.

        • Andrew Cole

          Metallica think copying is stealing 🙂

          • hobspawn

            Metallica think??!

          • Andrew Cole

            They took the pirates to court way back.

    • sidor

      There is a stronger and more general argument: EU is not an economic union. It is a political organisation with its political goal still not announced. Its non-economic goal is inevitably in conflict wit the economic reality, which we clearly see in the long depression in the EZ. There is no economic sense in common currency. It is a disaster. But They are prepared to do whatever to keep it.

    • Marvin

      A doomed project in turmoil economically, with unemployment up to their necks, and now being infested with millions of migrants all demanding to be provided with western prosperity for life. This dung heap is crumbling and will drag us down with it if we do not do the right thing for the only time in our life.

    • drumroll please

      5 Which currency is doomed? You have never ever done the maths have you.

      4 Since when are Merkel and the Scandinavians Marxists?

      3 Checked the UK student debt loan book recently? Who is buying a house now?

      2 Greece was saved

      1 Emerging markets are emerging, what’s your point, you are buying goods from China like a madman.

      • hobspawn

         “Which currency is doomed? You have never ever done the maths have you.”

        One law for the lion and ox is oppression. The Euro is unable to represent the divergence of economies in the Eurozone.

        “Since when are Merkel and the Scandinavians Marxists?”

        I did not call them Marxists, although you have a point. I said that their Marxian PPE text books told them that immigration would solve their economic problems.

        “Checked the UK student debt loan book recently? Who is buying a house now?”

        …and your solution is yet more unskilled economic migrants.

        “Greece was saved”

        Saved!!! We’re all saved by Frau Merkel!!! Yippee! Let’s keep an eye on that one…

        “Emerging markets are emerging, what’s your point, you are buying goods from China like a madman.”

        And selling there too! Without a trade agreement! How can that happen???

        • Planet Vague

          “We need to make our own trade agreements!”

          What. happened. to. that. line. of. non-argument?

          • hobspawn

             “”We are the 5th largest economy in the world”
            What? Thanks. to. the. EU?”

            In 1960 we were 4th and in 1950 3rd.

            “”The Euro is doomed”.
            What? And. the. Sterling. hasn’t. devalued. against. that. Euro. over. the. decades?”

            See if you can work out what is wrong with your question, apart from the weird full stops affectation.

          • Planet Vague

            Nothing is wrong with my comment.

            You however appear to agree that this trade deal nonsense line is nonsense, which is a start.

          • hobspawn

            Trade comes before deals. It is a non-issue because Britain will continue to trade, more so once it is released from the one-size-fits-all red-tape from Brussels. Traitors think that the EU invented our ability to trade. That’s nonsense.

          • Swarm of Drones

            No-one “thinks” the EU invented our ability to trade. YOU think traitors think the EU invented our ability to trade, soldier. You think fallacy, take 3,765, CUT!

          • hobspawn

            No, we are constantly reminded by the traitors that Britain will cease trading and go out of business if we vote to leave. It is the number one traitor argument, and it is pure scaremongering drivel. Cameron even gets Hollande to chant the mantra: “there will be consequences…”. The threat is implied, as always, like some great ship-devouring creature from the deep. Drivel.

      • sidor

        5. Either Euro is doomed, or the EZ economy, the choice is yours.

        4. Merkel was definitely a Marxist when she was an activist in the East Germany Communist Party.

        3. Relevance to the EZ financial policy?

        2. Greece didn’t get a single euro. The money of the EU taxpayers were used to save the German and French banks, and the EZ.

        1. You don’t disagree that the EZ economy is shrinking. Interesting to note that the economies of most of the EZ countries were growing rapidly before they joined the EZ. Like Italy and Finland which now remain in depression.

        • Swarm of Drones

          You see, I spot a new commie loon every day, soldier.

          • sidor

            You are successful in that, like Lord Haw Haw. He too was a Europhile.

  • Conway

    The election showed that voters trusted them with the economy, preferring the continuity they were offering to the change that Ed Miliband proposed.” And now they are totally disillusioned, seeing little difference.

    • Pip

      The Election merely showed that too many voters yet again fell for the lies and fearmongering like the good little sheep they truly are.

  • Andrew Cole

    Dear Mr Forsyth. Don’t take this the wrong way, but who cares what Cameron does. It is only the media, including yourself, that is fixated on this Tory divide. The rest of us will decide on a matter of importance, namely the EU referendum and what tone Cameron takes with his party or whether Corbyn enters the debate at all will not make a jot to the vast majority of the voters.

    If anything these politicians should be trying to do as few speeches as possible because on each side each time someone gets on there and starts spouting rubbish they turn away the very people they are trying to convince.

    Will the Tories split after the referendum? No. End of story. Please report on things that people are bothered about.

  • Malcolm Stevas

    Politics will next week “return to normal”? This EU thing is a minor distraction? Seems to me the most important thing on the horizon – though it’s understood that Cameron & Co are bored by all this “banging on” about Europe and would love to sideline it…
    As other commenters remark, the divisions in the Conservative Party are neither here nor there – we couldn’t care less. The key thing is the continued existence of our country as an independent entity, not as a provincial Airstrip One ruled largely from Brussels.
    Samuel Hooper on Cameron:
    “David Cameron has clearly made a calculation that talking about the catastrophic consequences of Brexit on the United Kingdom will scare up a significant number of votes and thus undermine the Leave campaigns. Never mind that it makes him look like a liar for having previously suggested that he might recommend Brexit if he was not successful in securing his pitiful package of “reforms”. And never mind the galling spectacle of a British prime minister actively and passionately running down his own country for electoral advantage.”
    “At what point does the dirge-like, pessimistic drivel offered up by the Remain campaign and spouted ceaselessly by loyal government ministers stop making the public question whether Brexit is safe, and start making them question why the h e l l we pay these people if not to aggressively defend our own national interest?”
    I recommend Hooper’s blog, semipartisansam (dot) c o m, for cogently articulated common sense on this and other matters.

    • Marvin

      Very articulate.

  • Marvin

    I just do not agree. The way slimy conman Cameron has gone about his deceit, lies, blackmail, bribery and collective scaremongering about the hypothetical and imaginary Ills that will befall us, all his best points by the way. All this and total disrespect for his Cabinet, colleagues, his MPs and the public who kept him in power. No we cannot abide by this spineless traitor.

  • Pip

    I have yet to see the Remain Camp win any of the arguments, the only people attempting to suggest so are the disingenuous Mainstream Media.

  • The Active Citizen

    James, there may be a much deeper and more serious problem than the upset the PM has already caused, and the difficulty of reuniting the party afterwards – whatever the referendum result.

    Many people, myself included, are deeply unhappy (some are fuming) at the PM’s total disregard for his essential role in acting in the country’s interests. He seems to be going out of his way to make us sound like a pathetic third world country, incapable of doing anything on its own. He even stood beside the French President yesterday and nodded along whilst M. Hollande made threats of ‘consequences’, should we dare to leave the EU.

    The whole Remain side of the Party seemed delighted that the pound fell, the Monday after Boris declared for Leave. In fact there were many reasons for that fall and Brexit and Boris were only two of them on that day. Business and every other pressure group is encouraged to make us sound like we’re only being held up by the grace of our EU partners.

    Calamities are suggested and EU partners are then encouraged to say that yes, they will of course visit plagues of locusts on us. (Or whatever the claim is.) All this stuff is being reported around the world, for heaven’s sake!

    If Mr Cameron and his colleagues carry on like this, the damage to our international reputation will take decades to repair. It makes the damage to the Conservative Party seem trivial by comparison.

    Someone needs to remind Mr Cameron of his responsibilities. He also seems to need reminding that we’re still the world’s 5th-biggest economic power and 4th-greatest military power.

    • You mean like standing smirking while the French President makes threats against the United Kingdom, Cameron need to go as he simply is not a fit and proper person for his office.

      • Malcolm Stevas

        Samuel Hooper writes in his blog about this, “All of this took place while our prime minister stood limply next to the French president at his podium, as though French special forces had kidnapped Samantha and the kids and were holding them at gunpoint in the background.”

  • Bertie Wooster

    To conclude that the the remain side is winning on the economy is laughable once you understand that while we remain inside the EU, Brussels can bludgeon us with bills and regulation at will, because we voted for them to control our sovereignty. That is the true leap into the dark and it scares me to think we have Prime Minister who is fighting to give away control of this country’s future.

  • paul

    Cameron has always used the principle of Divide, Rule & Conquer mainly through his penchant for The Politics of Fear approach which we evidently saw during the Scottish Referendum which he then manipulated for his own political means during the following General Election.
    Our PM does not like being challenged he takes it as a personal affront and he has made some pretty despicable comments over the years with his comments on the Welsh NHS denigrating all of the professional people who work within this beloved Institution.
    Rest assured Cameron deserves to be consigned to the political scrapheap for his actions he is a political chancer who got lucky !!!

  • Ingmar Blessing

    Maybe a stupid question by an outsider: What punches does the in-campaign have left?

    To me the case looks clear:
    – a lot of major politicians are for an out
    – the EU is burning and clearly about to collapse
    – the migrant crisis is swapping over the continent and won’t end
    – the core (advantage of the EU) Schengen is at stake
    – the British concerns are completely ignored by Brussels (spending efficiency, regulation mentality, democracy deficit, corruption,…)
    – the French are threatening to open the borders (to which – if I was in the position – my answer would be to open the German borders to France for a couple of tank divisions)

    – the three wealthiest countries on the continent are: Switzerland, Iceland and Norway. All not members of the EU

    What can Cameron (the out campaigners) do? Short term money is a very weak argument for a decision with long-term implications. If that was different, we’d speak Arabian by choice and live on Saudi oil…

    • On the other hand…

      There is no sign of an EU collapse.. the other points are irrelevant. The last remark is just silly and racist. We need real ideas, not rants.

      • Ingmar Blessing

        Why is the last one silly and racist? France is openly blackmailing a neighboring country by threatening to do something extremely negative with the full knowledge that it is purely negative. There is no gray zone in opening the borders for illegals, it’s a major affront intended to be a major affront. And btw not different in what the Turks are doing right now. Or do you think Ankara is fit to join the EU?

        The signs for an EU collapse are there:

        – hardening fractions within the union (Visegraad countries)
        – countries are seriously thinking to leave (UK)
        – half the continent is in recession since 10 years and won’t get out without drastic measures
        – three of the core accomplishments turned extremely sour: Schengen, the ECU and the majority principle
        – 1/3 of the EU “parliament” is filled with MPs who want to abolish the EU
        – France is shortly before the presidential election with a ~40% chance for a national socialist anti-EU candidate to win

        What else does it need?

        • On the other hand…

          – hardening fractions within the union (Visegraad countries) – PROOF OF DEMOCRACY! DO YOU PREFER DICTATORSHIP?
          – half the continent is in recession since 10 years and won’t get out without drastic measures – UNDER THE REPUBLICANS THE USA WAS, TOO.. OBAMA HAS WORKED WONDERS. AGAINST THE MOST UNDEMOCRATIC AND HATE-FILLED DECEITFUL OPPOSITION.
          – three of the core accomplishments turned extremely sour: Schengen, the ECU and the majority principle – SOME WANTED SCHENGEN … SOME DIDN’T. AND DEMOCRACTICALLY IT WAS SUSPENDED BY SOME THE FIRST ONES.
          – 1/3 of the EU “parliament” is filled with MPs who want to abolish the EU – NIT SURE ABOUT 33%… BUT IF IT REACHES 50% THEY CAN DEMOCRATICALLY DISSOLVE THE UNION.
          – France is shortly before the presidential election with a ~40% chance for a national socialist anti-EU candidate to win WAIT AND SEE .— UTTER SPECULATION FOR YOUR POLITICAL PURPOSES

          What else does it need?

          • Ingmar Blessing

            It’s possible to bring forward you points without SCREAMING!

            1) A democratic process would be to find a common compromise, but what is happening now is that countries openly ignore the EU decisions (or the majority vote) and lock up their borders.

            2) France – an important core member – has already turned for good, because they have permanently installed the emergency state. They are on the best way to a Boutefika statehood. Do you think others will not follow if comparable attacks happen eg in Germany or Belgium? What is the long-term outlook for the EU on dealing with that issue?

            3) If the UK leaves, Ireland will quite likely leave as well. And what if a continental country wants to leave legally. Will it end like in the USA when several states wanted to leave legally? (it wasn’t about slavery back then, the North offered the slaveholder states to keep the slaves in case they wouldn’t secede)

            4) Obama has worked wonders when it comes to statistical gymnastics and the financial industry still isn’t in jail but working on the next pile of worthless paper values.

            5) according to the Schengen treaty a country can legally close its borders for 6 months. After that they have to open them again. Quoestion: What will happen then? Will they open them for one day to close them again after?

            6) Does the EU parliament really have the power to dissolve the EU?? I seriously doubt that..

            7) My speculation on France is based on polls and election results as well as the fact that the socialists had to commit suicide in the regions to keep the FN away from power.

      • Marvin

        So the countries in the EURO are all thriving then? Their figures for employment are fine then? So how are they going to find work for the millions of migrants that they will be forced to take, or will they provide all their wants and needs for life? Why are our NHS, restaurants, hotels, coffee shops and almost every other business infested with EU migrants. Which planet are you on?

        • On the other hand…

          ‘Infested’. enough said. You are certainly not worth listening to.

          • Marvin

            A million locusts destroying everything in it’s path is infestation. Several million parasites just walking into the lands of the hated infidels demanding to be provided with all of life’s luxuries forever is an infestation. So goodbye and good Sharia to you.

  • Marvin

    Another Cameron bogus con. All the expats in Europe and Gibralta are allowed to vote in the referendum and we know which way they would vote, but in the Scottish referendum, the Scots in the rest of the UK could not. Talk about DECEIT!

  • WTF

    I never knew Cameron had any pro EU punches as his performance at the recent EU meeting left him with nothing to offer us !