Cameron’s three front battle

Is time of complacency over for David Cameron?

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David Cameron’s associates sometimes quip that he has only two modi operandi: complacency and panic. And it is widely agreed that he saves his best for the latter.  As he prepares for Britain’s EU referendum, the Prime Minister appears to belatedly to be shifting into that state.

Over the next few months he is facing a three front battle: the EU renegotiaton with Brussels and other member states, the fight within his party in Westminster, and the campaign which the British people will decide.

On the first front, the government is trying to create a sense of momentum – and briefing that many EU member states are not just supporting his policies on benefits – they are preparing to implement a variant of it for themselves. While Cameron is unlikely to get everything he asks for, it looks like a deal with Brussels is to be found. But even before having secured that deal, Cameron has already gone into campaign mode, placing himself firmly behind the In. 

The second is his own party. In the run-up the EU summit on 19 February, there is lots of talk of Cameron pulled three surprise concessions  out of his hat to get the party on board. A special path for Britain, allowing it to be in the outer circle of a two-tier Europe; a deal on Europe’s Charter of Fundamental Rights (which would entail not being bound by it and which may include the establishment of an equivalent of the German constitutional court); and the creation of an “emergency brake” on EU migration to Britain, enabling the government to block new arrivals if public services become overwhelmed. He hopes to use these concessions to reach out to two prominent swing voters: Home secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson. The vote of these two heavyweights could play a crucial role in convincing the Conservative base. On this front Cameron scored a minor coup last week by getting Nick Herbert to lead the Conservative campaign to stay in the EU. Herbert, who 15 years ago had headed the campaign to keep Britain out of the euro, had until recently worked closely on the anti-euro campaign with Dominic Cummings, the campaign director for Vote Leave.

But the most challenging front could be the British public – an audience that has hitherto been neglected. The remain campaign has been long convinced that the way forward is to emphasise that – with possibly only 20 weeks left before the referendum – there is still not a credible account on how Britain outside the EU would look like. Cameron is likely to play relentlessly on this, striking fear of the unknown into the hearts of undecided voters.  The Spectator Magazine claims “Project Fear” is back: much like the successful Scotland campaign, the In-campaign will expose the contradictions and flakiness of the sceptics. One of the striking developments is the way the Spectator is claiming that Cameron will broaden out his account of the risks of Brexit to encompass national security as well as economic security. Apparently, Cameron will increasingly emphasize the geopolitical dangers of leaving the EU and the general danger of going alone in a dangerous and uncertain world. Britain leaving the EU is what Putin and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi want, is the message.

That David Cameron is getting serious on all three fronts is encouraging and shows that the time of complacency may indeed be over. It is not before time: the latest polls suggested over 50% of Britons may vote to leave the EU.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.