Has the renegotiation done more to boost Remain – or Leave?

  • By Lord Ashcroft
  • 23 February 2016
  • Europe

The summitry is over, the deal is done, and the plan David Cameron set out in his Bloomberg speech three years ago is nearing completion.

In promising the in-out EU referendum, he was determined that voters would not be asked to settle for things as they were. As he put it, “a vote today between the status quo and leaving would be an entirely false choice… It is wrong to ask people whether to stay or go before we have had a chance to put the relationship right.” Instead, the new government would negotiate “a new settlement” for the UK in a more flexible, democratic, accountable European Union with the single market at its heart.

The scheme had several virtues from Downing Street’s point of view: it acknowledged the EU’s flaws, lent a sense of mission to the Tories’ European policy, portrayed a leader ready to stand up for Britain, distinguished the Conservatives from other parties, and allowed the PM to move on to questions that were of more interest to more voters. The renegotiation would also, surely, boost the chances that Britain would vote to stay – the position for which Cameron was always bound to campaign. Uncertainty about the consequences of leaving, plus a few concessions in Britain’s favour, ought to do the trick.

And for some voters, it will. As my polling has found, there is a crucial section of the electorate – I called them the ‘Listen to DC’ group – who are undecided on the referendum question, consider free movement and free trade as much as immigration and border control, see the decision in terms of security and doing the right thing for future generations, think leaving sounds like a bigger risk than staying, and would be more likely to vote to remain if Cameron declared he had secured a better deal for Britain. Indeed, half of all Conservative voters, including some of the more Eurosceptically inclined, said a strong recommendation from Cameron would make a difference.

Moreover, whatever you may think of what he brought home from Brussels, the last week has seen Cameron in his element. Batting for Britain and forcefully defending the result, he looks and sounds the part of PM better than any of his contemporaries. The remain campaign will be led by (as far as the voters are concerned) Britain’s most persuasive politician. Surely, then, the 2013 Bloomberg strategy is exactly on course. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer is that there is another interpretation of the summit and the weeks leading up to it: as a set-piece demonstration of not one but two of the Brexiteers’ main arguments. First, that in order to be able to change UK law on fairly basic things like who is entitled to which benefits, our Prime Minister has to spend days and nights locked in negotiations with people no-one in Britain voted for. And second – the reason agreement is often so hard – that we and our European neighbours see the EU in completely different terms.

My EU-wide polling, conducted before last week’s summit, found that it was the proposed exemption from ever closer union, rather than any of the more practical demands, that met the most opposition from people in other member states. And as we are seeing in my regular focus groups in EU capitals, the institution often inspires an emotional attachment elsewhere in Europe – as a guarantor of peace, or a badge of membership in the western world – that British voters do not share. Common sacrifice is part of the deal, and many Europeans are indignant at the idea that one country should want to opt out from it.

In other words, the manoeuvring of the last few weeks has highlighted the risks of remaining: that it is hard for Britain to stand aside from the forces of integration, even when we have a government that wants to. Cameron’s determination that voters should not just be offered the status quo cuts both ways. How do we know what we will be asked to sign up to in five, ten or twenty years – and whether our leaders will be willing or able to refuse?

Many voters will consider this and decide that the benefits of staying nonetheless outweigh the risks, or that the hazards are greater outside than in. But the Brussels deal will not be the last word on our relationship with the EU, whether or not it is ratified in the referendum. The more that becomes part of the voters’ calculation, the more uncertain is the outcome four months from today.

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