As political strategies go, David Cameron’s plan to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union is almost perfect – apart from the fact that it is inherently flawed. He forgot to account for the hitherto unimaginable risk that the leader of the Labour party would decide not to campaign for ‘Bremain’. Ultimately, however, the damage to Labour will be just as significant.
It is of course a bit of a stretch to say that the decision to defer to the one-off wisdom of the British people with an irreversible plebiscite represents a well-considered plan on the part of the Conservative leadership. It was more or less forced on Cameron by the Conservatives’ inexplicably rabid backbenchers in the context of his failure to win a majority in 2010, a dynamic that has also compelled him to reluctantly include some of those most afflicted by Europhobia in his cabinet.
Clearly, as Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation proves, the Brexiteers’ empowerment does not eliminate their propensity to self-destruct. It is ridiculous to claim, as some have, that Smith’s resignation had nothing to do with Brexit. Iain Duncan Smith is a person with a great many things clattering around in his brain at any given moment, and Brexit is clearly one of the big ones.
So it wasn’t a rational decision: it might have generated a few negative headlines for Cameron and particularly George Osborne, but ultimately Smith’s attempt to align himself with anti-austerity sentiment is an invitation to ridicule, and undermines his credibility on every issue about which he may wish to opine.
Nevertheless, while Cameron and Osborne might not have chosen to stage a referendum, they will have quickly understood the upsides. Holding a referendum on the EU would, in normal circumstances, strongly benefit the centrist wing of the Conservative party that they claim as their own. But the ascendance of Jeremy Corbyn renders the moment anything but normal.
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