DAVID CAMERON returned home from Brussels last night to mixed reviews. The likes of Nigel Farage were always going to pan his “renegotiation” of Britain’s EU membership (and did not disappoint). Less predictable was the gloomy verdict from typically friendlier sources. “Thin Gruel” ran the leader headline in the Times, while the Spectator deemed the EU to have “called the prime minister’s bluff”. Michael Gove, a close ally who had been expected to bite his Eurosceptic tongue, has just declared for the Out campaign (his statement conforming, almost down to individual sentences, to the whiggish case for Brexit put to me recently by Dominic Cummings, his confidante and former adviser). Meanwhile Boris Johnson may soon contort his (in reality Europhile) tongue into an opportunistic endorsement for Brexit. And even Andrea Leadsom, the Conservative MP who for years has beaten the drum for renegotiation, declared for Out this morning minutes after Mr Cameron had announced in Downing Street that the referendum would take place on June 23rd.
Spare the prime minister little pity, for he has been on what politicians like to call a “journey”. Before January 2013, when he announced his plan to renegotiate Britain’s EU membership and put the result to a referendum, the subject had not been not one of the many about which the prime minister knew or thought much. Downing Street’s supply of expertise and contacts was poor. Thus inhibited, its EU policy to date had amounted to tactical raids; even the 2011 British block on an EU rescue deal, subsequently dressed up as a coup, was a piece of brinkmanship gone wrong. Watching the Bloomberg speech in 2013, I sat behind Daniel Hannan, a notoriously anti-EU Tory MEP, who was buried in his phone busily drafting and redrafting a tweet offering his opinion. As Mr Cameron went on, the draft became progressively more enthusiastic. This was an early (and not isolated) sign that, under-briefed and over-optimistic, Mr Cameron was allowing expectations get much, much too high.
So they proved. The story of the intervening years is that of his gradual recognition that alliance-building and compromise, not foot-stamping and unilateralism (or the “Cameron Show”, as Germany’s Spiegel exasperatedly calls it), is the way to get things done in Brussels. As the renegotiation geared up after the election last year, the prime minister hired new advisers, toured the continent nurturing relationships and gradually moderated his demands. The result is a modest but respectable package that would have gone down better at home had the prime minister levelled with his party, and what the political scientist Tim Bale calls “the party in the media”, earlier in the process.
The good news is that the renegotiation is of secondary relevance in the impending referendum campaign. Much of the electoral landscape is already fixed; as I argue in my column this week, the great European divide in Britain is really about education and class. And as I pointed out at the start of the summit, of the variable factors Mr Cameron’s deal is perhaps in the second half-dozen, by order of importance. Higher up are the fortunes of the economy and the state of the migrant crisis when Britons come to vote (Enrico Letta, the former Italian prime minister, warned against holding a referendum this summer, citing the daily images of chaos on the continent that will fill television screens).
The used-car test
But nothing will matter as much as Mr Cameron’s standing. Believe it or not, voters are not terribly interested in Europe. In the Ipsos MORI issues index it has long bumped along well below other political subjects. Even as it has spiked in the past months—not least thanks to the prime minister’s theatrics—it has remained below most other big policy areas (like education, housing and poverty, not to mention healthcare and the economy) and far, far below its historical peak in the early 2000s. Eurostat polling suggests that Britons are the worst- or second-worst informed electorate in the EU when it comes to the workings of the union. So the facts of the matter are at best peripheral. The referendum will be decided by mood and trust.
Consider the essential questions. How tolerable is the status quo? Does the government look stable and capable? Is the country well-run? Which campaign has the most credibility? Whose dire warnings about risks (for both sides will deal heavily in that currency) seem most believable? Which abyss looks darker and deeper? What will voters risk to stick two fingers up at the establishment? Each of these questions turns significantly on Mr Cameron’s personal appeal and abilities. If it currently looks like the In campaign will prevail, that is because he remains relatively well-liked and respected (with the emphasis on relatively). The Out camp may have Mr Gove and perhaps Mr Johnson, but otherwise it is a bunch of cabinet no-names and fringe eccentrics. Last night’s chaotic pro-Brexit rally, fronted by Mr Farage and George Galloway, highlighted that much. It does not pass the “would you buy a used car from this dealer?” test. For all his flaws, and those of his renegotiation, Mr Cameron does. Backed up by ranks of business leaders, the majority of his cabinet and almost the entire Labour Party, especially so.
A health warning is therefore warranted. In the coming months, day-to-day news will be pored over for its possible effect on the In-Out balance. The funding, slogans, websites, endorsements and social-media presence of the campaigns will be compared and rated. News from the continent will be anatomised for domestic significance. Much of this will be nonsense. There is a good way of distinguishing signal from noise. Ask: does this significantly move voters’ trust in the establishment and/or their preference for the status quo over uncertain alternatives? Where the answer is yes, the development in question will usually, directly or indirectly, concern the person of the prime minister (a government corruption scandal, say, or a major public-service failure). The renegotiation may be over, but the real “Cameron Show” has just begun.