The notion that David Cameron performs best in “essay crisis” mode was first publicly posited by his biographers Francis Elliott and James Hanning in their then definitive work on the Tory leader. In Cameron: the rise of the new Conservative, published in 2007, they demonstrated how their subject has long had a habit of being a little too “chillaxed” and then, when it really matters, at five minutes to midnight with disaster looming, he always somehow executes a manoeuvre that rescues the situation and gets him out of a hole. Apparently this worked at Eton and then at Oxford, when a burst of emergency cramming and belated hard work secured him a good degree. When he ran for the Tory leadership in 2005 his campaign was struggling initially, to the extent that he was mocked as a lightweight, until according to Westminster legend he won it with one speech given without notes at Tory conference in Blackpool that Autumn. As ever the myth is somewhat overblown, in that Cameron’s team had put in a lot of work in the weeks leading up to that event and his campaign launch speech in London and good showing in focus groups demonstrated that he had the potential to be a winner.
There is no doubt, though, that Cameron has tended to leave it late. He did it again in the 2010 election against Gordon Brown, which he botched, and then rescued the situation after polling day with a cleverly executed switch to coalition. Several years ago when he was up against truculent parts of his own party and with UKIP on the rise, he turned before the 2015 election to the Australian strategist Lynton Crosby and in defiance of the polls and the commentariat pulled off an extraordinary victory that came with a parliamentary overall majority he and Osborne did not expect but Crosby did. When the pressure is on, lucky old Cameron tends to get results or at least to get away with it pretty stylishly. But will it work this time with the EU referendum taking place on June 23rd? Or will this prove to be an essay crisis too far for David Cameron?
That depends on the conduct and context of the campaign. First, it is true that the Prime Minister will find himself in a perilous position if he fights on this deal he finally secured in Brussels on Friday. Despite the best efforts of supporters and elements of the press on the European mainland to present it as a great settlement, it is not the fundamental rethink of the EU, to deal with the Eurozone crisis and the migration emergency, that is either needed or was implied by Cameron or the Chancellor George Osborne in recent years. It contains a number of measures which are fine in their own right, if diplomatic tidying up is your bag, but it is wide open to the charge that here is a contract that is not even signed by the European Parliament and won’t be until after Britons have cast their votes. But Cameron and the Remain team are highly unlikely to fight on the deal itself. They need to get as far away from it as possible in order to compete on the basic questions of in or out and security versus alleged instability, which is what they will start doing after a decent interval.
This should be an exam paper with which the Prime Minister has no problems, because it involves communicating directly down the lens of a TV camera with middle-ground voters who are not obsessed with sovereignty and do not like being shouted at by Tory MPs such as Peter Bone. Cameron is further aided by the bulk of his own cabinet declaring for Remain, along with most of the Labour party, the SNP in Scotland, what is left of the Liberal Democrats, and the big business CBI along with many entrepreneurs and personalities well known to the public.
Cameron is also boosted by the performance of the noisiest faction for Leave, the UKIP-backed Leave EU which on Friday organised one of the worst political rallies of the modern era under the banner of Grassroots Out (GO). Of course, the real challenge for Out is to convince voters who do not want to be associated with Nigel Farage and certainly not with George Galloway, who was the surprise “star turn” at the end of the rally, to the horror of some of the Eurosceptic audience. The Outers are lucky it was Friday night and only political hacks were watching what unfolded.
I cannot emphasise enough that some of those involved in the GO organisation are decent patriots, but the cumulative effect was akin to standing in a saloon bar in 1975 or in a golf clubhouse in 1968 while someone explains their lurid theories about European history 1914-45 based on repeated viewings of Battle of Britain. There were even jokes about the Belgians. Personally, as someone likely to vote Out, by the end of watching the livestream of this appalling event I would have kissed the feet of Donald Tusk and donned an EU t-shirt while humming Beethoven’s Ode to Joy.
Somehow, good people such as Ruth Lea, Labour’s Kate Hoey and David Davis for the Tories have got themselves involved in the GO shambles, partly because of some epic mismanagement and poor manners on the part of the rival and more moderate Vote Leave. Efforts will surely be made to get them to reverse back into Vote Leave, which now has cabinet ministers Michael Gove, Priti Patel and four others, plus many more junior ministers lined up.
The UKIP-backed Leave EU is not finished, though. The UKIP donor Aaron Banks and his team have executed one of the most audacious operations in recent British political history and will not give up easily. Realising that they would be shut out of the campaign if Vote Leave won the designation as official campaign, which comes with air time and money, they set about building their own operation via social media and on the ground to compete for the designation. Vote Leave wants nothing to do with UKIP because it repels middle-ground voters Leave must win, but did not appreciate how much of a threat Leave EU is until it was almost too late.
This mess favours the Prime Minister and the Leave campaign. Of course it does. There are two problems for Cameron, however, one short-term and the other medium-term nearer to polling day. The designation of the official campaigns will be decided next month and if GO wins it then Cameron might as well start opening magnums of Pol Roger there and then. If that is not the outcome and a reformed Vote Leave gets it instead, then the Brexit campaign will look and sound very different and not be targeted at UKIP supporters who short of a nuclear apocalypse will turn out to vote Leave regardless.
Then there is the medium-term scenario, meaning early Summer. There the backdrop of this referendum is going to matter, a lot, and the risk for David Cameron is that the human catastrophe of the migrant crisis will be worse then than it is now. Simultaneously, the Prime Minister and his Home Secretary Theresa May, who is for Remain, will have to explain what are expected to be another set of high immigration numbers, which tend to trouble voters. Incidentally, the EU deal will not control immigration one bit, a reality that will be apparent to voters by referendum day.
And there’s the weak spot. Already, the Remain campaign is building its message on the highly questionable assertion that staying in is the safe option equating to security. They had better hope that is how it looks in June on the migration and security front, otherwise their strongest argument – stick with what you know – could be nullified at precisely the wrong moment, if there is a sense that the EU cannot cope and the EU model is broken. The numbers look ominous. Already this year they eclipse what happened early last year. In January, Greek police recorded 58,547 refugees entering Europe via Greece, compared to 1,694 in the same month last year.
Perhaps Cameron can cope no matter what, with a last minute appeal or deft flourish even if the question of regaining control of borders dominates. I wonder though. If Leave can deprive Remain of the safety card and talk calmly to the middle-ground, then the Cameron essay crisis approach might not be enough. Ultimately it will be a test of his personality and campaigning prowess, as a leader engaged in the ultimate contest, the final occasion he will go to the country, hoping to prevent his tenure ending in failure. What a story. What theatre. What historic high stakes for the UK and the EU. Will it work for Cameron one last time time? Just because a technique has been successful many times before does not mean it always will be.