Why a win isn’t enough for David Cameron

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

David Cameron's remarks will ring alarm bells among the aid community [Brett Jordan/Flickr]

The Brexit referendum will not be a simple win/lose equation. A slim victory for the ‘remain’ side will not be enough to lay the issue to rest, writes Tom Clarkson. 

Tom Clarkson is research team leader at ComRes, a research consultancy specialising in Corporate Reputation, Public Policy and Communications.

If David Cameron was sitting at a poker table, even the most impassive of croupiers might have raised an eyebrow by now. Seemingly not content with two successful gambles on voting reform and Scottish independence, Mr Cameron has put all his chips on the table in promising a referendum on Brexit – gambling his own political future, that of his party, his country’s membership of world’s largest economy and potentially even the future of the European Union itself.

As it stands, Mr Cameron may be feeling quietly confident about his bet – most recent opinion polls have shown a healthy lead for the ‘remain’ side, including the latest from ComRes.

The picture may of course change, not least after we are told the outcome of Mr Cameron’s renegotiations in Brussels and the intense media frenzy of the short campaign begins.

However, even if ‘remain’ stays in front, the odds in Mr Cameron’s gamble are longer than they may at first appear.

The importance of context

Referendums are not always simple win / loss equations. As last year’s vote on Scottish independence has shown, the conclusiveness of a referendum in settling the debate on an issue “for a generation” is often far more important than the headline result itself.

The exact parameters of what makes a result conclusive depend on the political context – whether the winning option is supported by the ‘establishment’ (the government and big business) or by ‘insurgent forces’ (ranging from political opposition parties to grassroots activists), and whether it represents the ‘status quo’ or ‘change’.

At ComRes, we have been looking back at recent referendum results across Europe and how the aftermath of these varies depending on the category of the result.

Our analysis shows that where the establishment is backing the status quo option – as we expect Mr Cameron to do on EU membership – it would require a comfortable victory (60% or more) to end debate on the issue. A win that falls short of this mark risks falling into the danger zone, where a victory is not enough to put the nails into the opposition’s coffin.

The Camerendum

David Cameron has called three national referendums during his time in 10 Downing Street and, on the face of it, has an enviable record so far – two wins from two. In each case, he has backed the status quo, seeking to end the clamour for change by flattening it at the hands of the electorate.

This decision to hold a referendum while preferring to maintain the status quo is unusual for a Western government and places David Cameron particularly at risk of fanning the flames rather than killing off the debate once and for all.

Victory in the Scottish referendum falls firmly into this category – the Better Together campaign needed a more resounding victory (60% or more of the vote) to damage the long-term resilience of Scottish independence as a political issue. With the ultimate margin of victory just 10 points (55% to 45%), the Scottish nationalist campaign is arguably more energised now than it was before the referendum.

It may look like a win on paper, but the long-term impact of the referendum has actually been to allow Scottish nationalists to place their issue high on the political agenda and keep it there for the foreseeable future.

In contrast, Mr Cameron’s 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) serves as an example of a conclusive victory that crossed the 60% threshold. Mr Cameron and his party backed the status quo (No to AV) and won by a margin of 67% to 33%, ensuring that AV is now firmly off the agenda and delivering a major setback to supporters of electoral reform in the UK.

David Cameron: poker player

Against this backdrop, the odds in Mr Cameron’s gamble – placing his EU poker chips on the green baize of the British political table – are even longer than may initially meet the eye.

Although much of the media coverage between now and the referendum may focus on the headline narrative of leave vs. remain, this is only part of the story.

Anything less than a resounding win is likely to fuel the fire in the long run – positioning the UK’s membership of the EU as a priority political issue well beyond the lifecycle of this referendum campaign.

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