The authoritative source for independent research on UK-EU relations

Tim Bale looks back at the 2016 Brexit vote and considers why David Cameron decided to call the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union – and why he went on to lose it. 

Political scientists like to talk about critical junctures – inflection points at which an event occurs or a decision is made that, at least in hindsight, effectively ‘locks in’ a particular outcome or at the very least rules out other possibilities. U-turn or no u-turn, Kwasi Kwarteng’s announcement of the government’s ‘Growth Planon 23 September looks, for good or ill (probably ill), like being one of these.

But perhaps the biggest critical juncture in Britain’s recent political, economic, and diplomatic history was David Cameron’s promise, made public in January 2013, to hold an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union if the Conservatives were returned at the next general election. It may not have rendered the country’s departure from the EU inevitable. But it did put an end to any lingering hopes Cameron may still have had that his party would, as he’d once put it, ‘stop banging on about Europe.’

The Conservative Party’s preoccupation with Europe had done much over the years to ensure that, in spite of the successes achieved over the years by British diplomacy in Brussels, the country’s voters, particularly if they were readers of Tory-supporting newspapers, rarely, if ever, heard anything positive about the EU – something that was always going to make it difficult to sell the advantages of membership if and when they were offered the chance to register a verdict on it. Yet before Cameron announced his intention to call a referendum, ‘Europe’ was just one issue among many facing the country. After he stepped away from the podium at Bloomberg’s London HQ on 23 January 2013, however, it was pretty much guaranteed to become, for the Tories at least, almost all-consuming.

A politician as crafty as Cameron – even one criticised by his admirers as more of a game-playing tactician than a serious-minded strategist – must have known that was a distinct risk. Why, then, did he choose to poke the hornet’s nest? And why, having done so, did Leave win and Remain lose? Those are the two questions I try to answer in a newly released slim volume which relies on recently published first-hand accounts by those involved and draws on the work of myriad social scientists.

Whatever David Cameron tried to argue in his memoirs – one of those first-hand accounts I dig into in detail – an in/out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union was not an historical inevitability.

Cameron chose to commit to a vote, not because the country’s population was clamouring for one but because a significant minority of his own MPs, many of them frustrated by the constraints of coalition, were demanding that he do so – some because they feared that UKIP would cost them their seat (or the seats of too many of their colleagues) at the next election, some because they wanted out of the European Union and were more than happy to leverage that fear to their advantage.

Naturally, Cameron was aware he was running a risk – after all, his best friend in politics, Chancellor George Osborne, told him so again and again. But he thought he would win the vote, not least because he believed – mistakenly it turned out – that he could (a) negotiate a decent deal with the EU and, just as importantly, (b) rely on the personal loyalty of influential colleagues (not least Michael Gove and Boris Johnson) to trump their Euroscepticism (and, some would say, their opportunism).

David Cameron lost the referendum for a whole host of reasons. For one thing, the deal he negotiated was too complex and too much of a contrast with what he had earlier promised to extract from Brussels to persuade most Eurosceptics to back it. For another, he underestimated how much of a role immigration would play in the debate and how willing Conservatives in the Leave campaign would be to tap into the concerns of ‘identity conservatives’ on the issue.

Cameron also underestimated the extent to which the Leave campaign would prove able to mobilise its supporters to turn out and vote, even people who didn’t normally bother. Conversely, he overestimated the willingness of the Eurosceptic Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, to help the Remain campaign win over traditional Labour voters. He also overestimated the extent to which voters would be swayed by the economic arguments against withdrawal, either because the economy wasn’t delivering for them anyway or because they believed they were sufficiently comfortably-off to weather the potential downsides of leaving the EU.

Hoping and believing that Remain would win, Cameron was so anxious about putting the Conservative Party back together again after the campaign that he pulled his punches when it came to criticising Tories on the Leave side, refusing again and again to fight fire with fire. He might also have avoided such a big split in the first place had he not decided to suspend collective responsibility – a decision which made it much easier for influential and often highly ambitious (as well as highly Eurosceptic) colleagues to plump for Leave.

Ultimately, though, Cameron lost the referendum because he failed – and failed spectacularly – to persuade his own party, both at Westminster and at the grassroots, to listen to and then to back its own leader. ‘Loyalty’, one of post-war Conservatism’s big beasts, David Maxwell-Fyfe, is said to have claimed, was ‘the Tory Party’s secret weapon’. Whether or not that was ever really the case, that weapon has now – definitively – been put firmly beyond use.

By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and former deputy director of UK in a Changing Europe.


All change in digital election campaigning?

Does the Israel-Gaza war create problems for Labour with Muslim voters?

Out of the hut into the fire?

How politicians learn about public opinion

Labour conference – the party’s biggest challenges are yet to come

Recent Articles