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Cameron’s day of judgement: bad gambles and the EU referendum

The EU referendum result was simultaneously shocking and revealing. The most senior figures in government had backed the Stronger In campaign, and senior cabinet members had cast their professional opinions in favour of the Remain side. The vote to leave has thus been interpreted as a vote against the Conservative government that offered the referendum, and to that effect David Cameron resigned shortly after it was announced. There are many reasons why a slim majority of the voting public felt the need to defy their government’s wishes, but there is one which is more revealing than others. The vote to leave was framed, largely through rhetorical posturing from Vote Leave, as a rebellion against the elite who dominated Cameron’s government; it was a repudiation of ‘Project Fear’. This begs the question: why were the Conservatives, under David Cameron, able to expand their vote share after 5 years in coalition, only to experience a defeat on a key issue a year later?

The argument of this paper is that the failure to secure a vote to Remain can be mainly attributed to Cameron and his close allies’ decision to use their positions of authority to swing the vote, rather than positive arguments for remaining in the EU. The outcome of the referendum has shown that this was not a good tactic. In hindsight, Cameron’s second government failed to truly shake off its most damaging criticisms: that it was elitist, that it did not engage with the impact of its austerity programme, and that it had failed to begin a reasoned conversation about immigration. Just as the 2015 General Election was swung by several ‘shy Tories’, shy Brexiters turned out in force to deliver, as David Davis has gleefully claimed, the largest mandate for government action ever recorded in British history. The majority of the voting public were unconvinced by the Government’s opinion, and as Michael Gove said on Sky News, had “had enough of experts”.[1]

There have been explanations of this result focusing on Labour’s retreat from the public eye during the crucial months of the campaign, as well as the success of Boris Johnson as the figurehead of the populist Leave movement. The alternative view I venture is that, while both of these points are extremely important, the result of the EU referendum can be best explained by acknowledging the poor relationship David Cameron had with the voting public. This approach prioritises the long-term trajectory of Cameron’s premiership over the short-term developments in either side’s campaigns. It draws upon the observations backed up by research indicating that the Conservative party and the Cabinet dominated coverage of the referendum, with Cameron in centre stage. Equally, it draws upon historic criticisms of Cameron’s public persona and his ability to unite his party under a governing ideology. This paper therefore concludes that circumstances within, not beyond, the government’s control were responsible for the vote to leave. That means that this is not a paper about why the campaign to Leave succeeded, rather it aims to answer why the Remain campaign failed. The assumption that is made when our focus shifts to the failure of one side, rather than the success of the other, is that the campaign was Cameron’s to lose. In that case, Cameron was forced out of Number 10 because of poor electoral tactics. His government’s reputation for economic competence was not enough to sway many disgruntled voters. The turnout for the referendum was extremely high, and therefore the electorate for the referendum was much more diverse than the one which voted Cameron into power in 2015. His failure to properly address the public at large on the terms they desired, perhaps something he had never needed to do before, caused his resignation; it happened to be the case, then, that along the way, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union.


Failures in the campaign

The Remain campaign was rightfully nicknamed ‘Project Fear’, both by its opponents and its critics, although Sir John Major attempted to recast it as ‘Project Reality’.[2] The problem with this was that a ‘reality’ project was exactly the opposite of what became popular electoral currency during the campaign. Stronger In’s central arguments were all based on the prospects of economic instability following an exit from the EU. Rather than inspiring fear or awakening voters to the reality of the situation, the project appeared to be one intending to educate an electorate that had become misinformed, which resonated poorly with undecided voters.

On a rhetorical level, the accusations of Stronger In being a scaremongering exercise were wholly justified. Campaign posters offered messages such as ‘Leaving Europe would be a leap in the dark’, and ‘Leave Europe and we lose our seat at the table’, and worst of all ‘Leave Europe and there’s no going back’.[3] There was a very palpable level of remonstrance within these messages. Those who felt that they were being forcefully educated about political realities didn’t respond well to it. British Election Study data indicates that 59% of respondents saw Remain as a campaign of fear, as opposed to 43% that regarded  Leave in this way.[4]

Research conducted by the University of Loughborough’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture indicates that media coverage of the referendum was predominantly focussed on the Conservative party. Leading Conservative figures occupied 7 of the top 10 most commonly referenced individuals between the 6th of May and 22nd of June, whilst the party topped the table for appearances by organisation in newspapers on both sides of the debate, and on television.[5] Crucially, the report comments on the “presidential nature of a debate where the explicit news media focus was… led by the two major protagonists”.[6] Surely the absence of the leader of the Labour party for much of the campaign (Jeremy Corbyn only ranked 7 in the list of most commonly referenced individuals noted above) intensified the country’s gaze on the Conservatives. But more importantly, the Conservative party was split into the charismatic Brexit camp, lead by former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, and the government camp. Clearly this sapped authority from a Prime Minister who already was faring badly in the approval ratings.

Surveys indicated that the Remain campaign was tightly wedded to the government throughout the weeks leading up to the vote. Jeremy Corbyn was a low-profile figure during these weeks, having been a longtime critic of the EU. Some Labour figures were more prominent, but Sadiq Khan was criticised within his own party for campaigning with the Prime Minister, leading to a further polarisation of the two parties in the public eye leading up to polling day. This meant that Cameron became an increasingly isolated figure. With much of the Labour party refusing to engage in a cross-party Remain campaign, and prominent Conservative figures chipping away at the Prime Minister’s authority within his own party, he and his close allies were judged more on their own merits.

Given the above, It is not surprising that such tactics as threatening an emergency budget, with heightened measures of austerity including greater taxes and lower spending, sunk like a lead balloon. Already in March YouGov had demonstrated that the new cuts announced in the Spring budget had caused a drop in approval ratings for the chancellor not seen since June 2013, while the percentage of Britons who felt cuts to be necessary at its lowest level since February 2011.[7] The tactic of “brandishing ever more threatening statistics at a brow-beaten public” was demonstrably not appropriate for such a campaign.[8]

There were two tactics employed by the Vote Leave campaign, and wholly ignored by the Remain side, that appear to have been extremely successful. The first was the readiness displayed by pro-Brexit politicians to engage in the practice of ‘post truth politics’, epitomised by the figure of £350 million per week claimed by the EU from our own government plastered on posters and campaign busses. This is not to say that the Remain side should have offered more half-truths in support of continued EU membership, but it is clear that the repudiation of false statistics failed to address the reasons why those messages were so successful. Secondly, the populism employed by prominent members of the Leave campaign, captured by the endless photographs of Boris Johnson pulling pints in local pubs, gave the campaign an added element of excitement entirely absent from the resounding negativity of prominent Remainers such as Cameron and Osborne. Both of these failings suggest that the Prime Minister’s media strategy and approach to engaging with the public was ill-equipped to adapt to the evolving dialectic of this referendum campaign.


Poor management of the media

This analysis points to a significant divide between the views and the approach of the Government, and the views of public they were courting. Comparisons with the evolution of Tony Blair’s personal mandate to govern over the course of his premiership could prove helpful in understanding why this was the case. Spin became a hallmark of Blair’s premiership, and his reliance on public opinion was very apparent in his dealings with the EU, something which I will explore below. Cameron dealt with the media in a different way. He never had a clear spin doctor by his side, particularly after the discrediting of Andy Coulson because of phone hacking scandals early on in the life of the coalition government. He therefore appeared to become damaged by revelations about his life inside and outside of politics: Panamagate is a prime example of this, but the allegations of elitism surrounding his involvement with Oxford University drinking societies which were unearthed in September 2015 were an early issue that chipped away at his public image. Cameron’s failure to coordinate a coherent response to the Panama allegations, therefore, can be viewed as a precursor to a misjudged referendum campaign.

This approach to the media was problematic for Remain, because approval ratings of Cameron, and of the government, had been poor for much of his second premiership. Cameron’s popularity declined after the General Election for several reasons; much of the press he was getting, therefore, was bad. Two damaging revelations occurred in the run up to the crucial six weeks of pre-vote campaigning from which Cameron was ill-equipped to recover. Firstly, February saw the conclusion of a slump in approval ratings of seven points in three months (according to ComRes), after the conclusion of his lambasted negotiations for a ‘special deal’ for the United Kingdom including the immigration ‘handbrake’.[9] Secondly, the association between Ian Cameron and the controversial Panama Papers had a significant impact on the Prime Minister following a public back-tracking, when it was revealed that he had previously owned shares in the company in question. This was documented by a series of damaging reports in the press of low approval ratings, leading to a nadir in mid-April when Jeremy Corbyn’s (-22) rose above Cameron’s (-24).[10]

Both of the above factors were significant because they undermined a key part of Cameron’s public image that enabled him to fend off Ed Miliband the previous year: his competence. Having returned from an over-hyped programme of EU negotiations, some may have been forgiven for expecting the confidence of Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of ‘peace in our time’. Instead, the negotiations gave the option for an emergency block on EU immigration into the UK: something the Home Secretary was not prepared to endorse. It has been revealed subsequently that Cameron and Theresa May could not come to an accord over the issue of immigration, with the former Prime Minister describing his eventual successor as ‘lily-livered’.[11] Then the allegations of elitism that had dogged Cameron for years resurfaced with his direct implication in the Panama scandal, made worse by his back-tracking on a statement regarding his financial involvement in his father’s Blairmore organisation. This was a far cry from the slick press operation that was crucial to Blair’s popularity for much of his premiership, whose heir in many other aspects Cameron so often claimed to be.

Undermined confidence in the abilities of the Prime Minister was a significant problem for Remain because of the overriding focus on the Cabinet and Conservative Party during campaigning season. The fact that his primary adversary was a member of his own party, a former ally and friend, intensified the focus on his abilities as a leader. Cameron’s place at the top of the chart of media appearances is unsurprising, but the Boris Johnson’s ranking in second place must be seen as a problem for the Government’s campaigning efforts. Whilst Cameron was floundering in the face of media scrutiny in the months preceding the crucial campaign period, Johnson was able to distance himself from the government with which he had only been marginally associated since the General Election and resume his position as an outsider, and therefore a populist.


After the fact

With the benefit of hind-sight, it is all too easy to see the  decline in  support for the government and  the weaknesses of its campaign.   Perhaps a more comprehensive EU propaganda effort might have been useful, but given the stringently factual approach adopted by ‘Project Reality’, it is foolish to suggest that the Stronger In campaign would have been able to match the tactics adopted by Vote Leave to ramp up pre-existing Euroscepticism with half-truths. What is clear is that there were certain measures within David Cameron’s power that he did not take. This could have either been because he felt he was not able to take them, or because he chose not to. It doesn’t appear to be the case that the Prime Minister simply underestimated the gravity of the situation, so we should conclude that the Brexit victory was down to his failed tactical approach: as Grant Shapps revealed in The Huffington Post, Cameron commented “midway through” the campaign that “If we lose this referendum campaign then I’m f****d and I’ll resign”.[12]

One such measure, it must be pointed out, would have been to keep Boris Johnson onside. Even if we ignore the idea that Johnson only campaigned for Leave because of Machiavellian designs on power, he himself reported that his decision had been “agonisingly difficult” and taken “with a huge amount of heartache” – a far cry from the bullishness on show closer to polling day.[13] Johnson held huge levels of public support after his time as London mayor. He was, at the time of choosing Brexit over Remain, the second most trusted British politician on EU matters after Cameron, and so could have helped to deflect much of the flack Cameron would take in April.[14] In October 2015, it was revealed by Ipsos Mori that he was also the most popular Conservative politician who could succeed Cameron were he to step down among the general public, and second only to Osborne among Conservative supporters.[15] To have only included the future Foreign Secretary in the Cabinet as a minister without portfolio, and to have failed to persuade him to fight for Remain with the Prime Minister, is a flagrant neglect of the power of patronage at Cameron’s disposal.

The other particularly inadvisable tactic was to call the referendum so quickly after the General Election. The Cabinet Office cannot be blamed for failing to predict the flack that Cameron would take in the months leading up to the campaign for revelations concerning his personal life: that would have amounted to clairvoyance. However, it seems that Cameron went against the advice of his respected strategist Sir Lynton Crosby in calling the referendum over a year earlier than he had committed to. Crosby’s view, according to a ‘senior Tory’, was that Cameron should “go to the summit, shout that it’s rubbish and then spend another year renegotiating according to a ‘senior Tory’.[16] Why it was that he was so quick to call a Referendum on an issue that was so polarising is not clear, and it failed to give the government adequate time to establish their negotiating credentials.

The Europhile press circled on this issue quickly after the vote was cast. The Observer was quick to declare that calling the referendum had been ‘Cameron’s bad bet’.[17] Aditya Chakrabortty of the Guardian went further, lambasting the Prime Minister for his ‘Teflon cockiness’ and claiming that the “entire referendum was called by David Cameron to fend off Nigel Farage and his own Tory ultras. There was no public outcry for a ballot… He gambled Britain and Europe’s future to shore up his own position.”[18] While worries about the Tory party’s continuing spiral into disunity were a clear motivating factor in the referendum date, this assertion cannot be wholly supported. Firstly, Ed Miliband committed to a referendum if the constitution of the Union was altered. That a committed pro-Europe leader would promise such a referendum to the Labour party and voters demonstrates the clear appeal of public consultation of Britain’s continuing status with the EU. Secondly, polling data indicates that Labour may have deprived the Conservatives of a majority had they more clearly promised an In/Out Referendum.[19] But the fact remains that Cameron called the referendum more quickly than he needed to.

Precedent from the Blair government adds further weight to the idea that the timing of the referendum was misjudged. It has been suggested that the Blair government’s choice to not put membership of the EMU to a vote was taken because there never seemed an appropriate time for the Prime Minister, so deft at judging the national mood. Spurning the chance for a ‘honeymoon’ vote on membership of the EMU after the 1997 General Election, Blair “would not go to the country over an issue on which he did not think he could win – and public opinion was hostile to the euro.”[20] A former adviser of Blair’s adds that “both [Blair and Brown] thought that taking advantage of an election landslide in such a transparent manner would not establish adequate legitimacy for a subsequent decision to enter EMU”.[21] Cameron would have done well to adopt the prudent strategy towards winning public support for European intervention adopted by Blair and Brown, but instead opted for a gung-ho approach that failed spectacularly to pay off.

This analysis points to the conclusion that Cameron failed to live up to his ‘Heir to Blair’ nickname at the crucial, defining moment of his premiership. He could not negotiate a positive relationship with the media and public in the lead up to this deciding moment in his career. This allowed revelations about his personal life to damage him as much as challenges in the political arena. The failure to shore up his support network within his party, symbolised by Boris Johnson’s departure to the Brexit campaign, paralleled his undermined public image. In the face of this, rather than spearheading a positive, populist, pro-EU campaign to Remain, he became the face of a strongly authoritarian and negative one which alienated voters and caused further fissures in a fragmenting relationship with his voting public. Having threaded a delicate course between rebellions and public crises throughout a 6-year stay at Number 10, he was too quick off the mark with an issue that can now be seen as one which encapsulates all that was wrong with his approach to the leadership of this country. We can only conclude that Cameron was wholly responsible for the end of a career with many highlights, but one resoundingly negative end.

About the author

Benedict Murphy is a final-year History undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford. In his recent studies he has focused on the impact of domestic political shifts during the Seventeenth Century on the English constitution, and on foreign policy. He holds a keen interest in contemporary politics and researched this article as a Global Policy Institute Summer School project in 2016. At the same time, Ben contributed to the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development’s policy report on the future of the jobs market with Jericho Chambers entitled ‘The Future of Work is Human’. After graduating, Ben will begin working for Brainlabs Digital, a data analytics and marketing agency based in London.



[1] https://www.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c

[2] Financial Times, 22.06.16

[3] http://www.strongerin.co.uk/for_campaigners#5AY08k37YTAZCmlf.97

[4] Jane Green, EU Referendum Analysis, p. 103

[5] https://blog.lboro.ac.uk/crcc/eu-referendum/uk-news-coverage-2016-eu-referendum-report-5-6-may-22-june-2016/, tables 2.1 and 2.2

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/03/16/cuts-approval-budget/

[8] Nick Clegg, ‘Brexit: the Battle for Britain’

[9] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/eu-referendum-david-camerons-approval-ratings-slump-amid-public-anger-over-europe-negotiations-a6872461.html

[10] https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/04/08/camerons-ratings-now-lower-corbyns/

[11] http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/camerons-lily-livered-sneer-at-may-8pzwt0pks

[12] http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/grant-shapps/eu-referendum-david-cameron-resign_b_10693858.html

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/feb/21/boris-johnson-eu-referendum-campaign-for-brexit-david-cameron

[14] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/eureferendum/12167914/Boris-Johnson-could-change-the-EU-referendum-result.-Heres-why.html

[15] https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3629/Boris-Johnson-most-popular-prospective-Conservative-leader.aspx

[16] http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/focus/article1672824.ece?shareToken=1af1708f64f569413530fa81c1949319

[17] https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/25/cameron-brexit-bet-drama-night-ripped-britain-apart-ukip-eu-referendum

[18] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/24/david-cameron-resign-teflon-cockiness

[19] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/ed-miliband-would-have-deprived-tories-of-majority-in-election-had-he-promised-eu-referendum-a6780241.html

[20] Julie Scott, A Missed Opportunity? New Labour’s European Policy 1997-2005, International Affairs, Jul. 2005, p. 718

[21] Ibid.