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David Lidington reviews Tim Bale's 'Brexit: an accident waiting to happen?'

Then-prime minister David Cameron in Brussels, January 2016 | Alamy

3 min read

Although flawed by its almost exclusive focus on UK domestic politics, Tim Bale’s concise appraisal of why David Cameron lost the 2016 referendum is well worth a read

Tim Bale’s commentaries on Conservative politics are always worth reading – and this study is no exception. In just 54 pages, he analyses why David Cameron called a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union and how he came to lose it.

Cameron’s Bloomberg speech in January 2013 was, in Bale’s judgement, “a critical juncture… when an event occurs that locks in a particular outcome”. That same month, an opinion poll by The Economist recorded just nine per cent of voters listing “Europe” as one of the top 10 priorities facing the country (the figure for the economy was 61 per cent), with only two per cent saying it was the most important issue. Yet the pledge made at Bloomberg ended up overturning more than 50 years of United Kingdom economic and international strategy and costing Cameron his premiership.

Bale is right in much of his assessment of the run-up to that pledge. Few people, even ministers, knew that Cameron, George Osborne and William Hague had even been discussing a referendum option. The case for a referendum was in large part about raw domestic politics: Cameron worried that without such a pledge Ukip would siphon off enough Tory votes in a 2015 general election to let Labour in. If he was going to make that promise, the argument then ran, better to do it early, when it was clearly at a moment of his own choosing rather than forced from him under pressure. 

While Bale acknowledges that Cameron was also influenced by developments elsewhere in Europe, he underplays this aspect. Indeed one weakness of the booklet is its almost exclusive focus on UK domestic politics and public opinion, without sufficient analysis of how those interplayed with words and actions in Brussels, Berlin, Paris and Warsaw. Then Commission president José Manuel Barroso, addressing the European parliament in November 2012, had called for a new EU treaty to entrench the fiscal and economic policy framework designed to buttress the eurozone. Cameron saw this both as a possible challenge to the UK’s pre-eminence in financial services but also an opportunity to secure treaty changes to protect the City of London and the rights of non-euro members.

As for the reasons Leave won, Bale has a long list

As for the reasons Leave won, Bale has a long list: Cameron’s deal was too complex and too much of a contrast with the expectations he had allowed to build up about what was possible; fears about immigration; the Remain campaign’s reliance on economic arguments and neglect of identity and value; Labour’s reluctance to commit itself; Cameron’s refusal to criticise leading Conservatives who backed Leave. 

All of those played a part. But immigration was central to the referendum outcome. The polls, which in early 2015 showed a strong Remain lead, narrowed after the Calais dispute in August and the refugee crisis that autumn. Leave’s slogan, “take back control”, successfully linked Europe – about which few people cared greatly – with immigration, about which they cared a lot. 

The booklet reads like a first sketch for a longer, more substantive, and reflective work. Perhaps that fuller version will materialise in his planned new book, out in March, examining the Conservative Party after Brexit. 

David Lidington is a former Conservative MP and Europe minister

"Brexit: an accident waiting to happen? Why David Cameron called the 2016 Referendum – and why he lost it"
Written by: Professor Tim Bale

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