The great miscalculation: David Cameron’s renegotiation and the EU Referendum campaign

It was supposed to be the springboard for a smooth and successful referendum campaign. In reality, David Cameron’s EU renegotiation was a great miscalculation that helped pave the way for voters to reject EU membership. Most significantly, the much-anticipated deal failed to sway members of his own Cabinet, while also highlighting the EU’s inflexibility on the free movement of people principle. Rather than create the momentum for a comfortable victory, the renegotiation storyline petered out as the official pro-EU campaign got stuck repeating messages about economic doom after Brexit.

Ultimately, Cameron blundered by promising so much and delivering little when it came to the UK’s position within the EU.

There was a strategic calculation behind using the referendum announcement to pursue a new deal – to great fanfare – with other EU leaders. In 1975, Harold Wilson won the referendum on remaining in the European Economic Community (EEC) on the back of a successful, if largely cosmetic, renegotiation. Prior to what the then Labour government called “Britain’s New Deal in Europe” opinion polls indicated there was in fact a majority to leave the EEC. The winning message in 1975 emphasized the advantages Wilson had succeeded in obtaining.

The other auspicious feature of a renegotiation this time round is that polls showed a clear preference among voters to stay in a reformed EU. All Cameron seemingly had to do was talk tough with EU leaders and come out with a piece of paper to wave to a thankful electorate. However, neither the reality nor the symbolism of the Prime Minister’s eventual deal did him any favours.

What came out of the February European Council where EU leaders debated UK demands was a set of conclusions running to 36 pages. Buried amongst its dense legalese was a commitment to protect countries not using the Euro from contributing to Eurozone bailouts and a reference stating that the UK was not legally bound by the “ever closer union principle”. The Leave camp swatted these changes aside as simply not binding until there was actual treaty change.

Once campaigning began in earnest, the EU debate bifurcated between the government’s dogged economic argument about the risk of Brexit and the anti-EU camp’s relentless politicization of immigration. This left no place for a discussion of the legal niceties of the conclusions from the February summit. When the renegotiation did feature, albeit peripherally, it was damaging on both a symbolic and a practical level.

The nitty-gritty of the in-work benefits arrangement (a phasing in of tax credits over four years for new EU migrants) was hardly something that could mobilize the masses. The Prime Minister gamely translated this into the slogan “no more something for nothing”. But this showed a fundamental misreading of the public mood. For it is the number of new migrants not their access to benefits that exercised anti-EU voters.

Hence the renegotiation played into the Leave camp’s hand by confirming the weakness of the government’s position over immigration within the EU. Indeed, Iain Duncan Smith made hay out of this after his resignation by portraying negotiations with the EU as being under the tutelage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. His comments yielded the inevitable newspaper caricature of Merkel as Cameron’s puppetmaster in The Sun.

The problem here for the Remain camp went beyond the awkward symbolism of being bossed around by Germany. Coming back from Brussels with very little to show on the hyper-sensitive immigration issue underlined the EU’s commitment to a single market that includes labour mobility. In response to voters’ fears that, pro-EU figures such as Yvette Cooper and Theresa May announced in the last days of campaigning that there could be new discussions on migrant quotas after a vote to remain. The Scottish National Party steadfastly refused to join this particular debate as it specifically sought to stay aloof from the Cameron deal. In this was the renegotiation also failed to unite cross-party support amongst the Remain camp.

Ultimately, Cameron blundered by promising so much and delivering little when it came to the UK’s position within the EU. The February agreement codified the UK’s special status as never before, which from an EU perspective was quite an achievement. But it came at the cost of self-marginalization in Brussels and did nothing to appease EU antipathy amongst UK voters. Such a precedent augurs badly for the negotiations on the UK formally withdrawing from the EU.