British Prime Minister David Cameron (C), former Liberal Democrats leader Paddy Ashdown (2R), former Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock (R) and British Labour Party politician Tessa Jowell (3L) make campaign calls for Britain Stronger in Europe, the official 'Remain' campaign organisation for the forthcoming EU referendum, in London on April 14, 2016. - The campaign got underway with 10 weeks to go before polling day on 23 June when Britain will vote to leave or remain in the European Union.

David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on membership of the EU

mai 2019

Former British Prime Minister, David Cameron, played a political game and lost. In a nation where Brussels had become the customary whipping boy, Cameron gambled his political destiny on a high-risk referendum that he thought he could never lose. He wanted to settle Britain’s place in Europe, instead, his referendum raised more questions than it brought concrete answers. The UK has since been paralysed in political turmoil, with the British public now questioning the motivations of the man who walked his nation to the cliff edge.  

By Christopher Loizou-McGill

In the early hours of June 24th 2016, the weary-eyed peoples of Europe were forced to reconcile a Britain that had sleepwalked itself out of the European Union. The nation, and by extension the entire international establishment, was left in a trancelike state of perplexity and dismay. The referendum’s architect in his own somnambulate demeanour addressed the nation, striking a tone rather befitting of an English football manager reckoning with the heartache of World Cup defeat. Of course, if politics were a game, then Cameron most certainly lost. Yet, for Cameron this was never a one stage game, for him it was always comprised of numerous rounds, with – excuse the boxing pun - the referendum intending to serve as the ultimate knockout blow, conclusively putting Britain’s awkward and toxic European question to bed. This paper will therefore explore the strategy employed by Cameron through the conventions of game theory; it will argue that Cameron overlooked the motivations in the Conservative Party and country at large, before finally endorsing the view that Cameron’s misreading of the political barometer has induced Britain’s gravest post-war political crisis.

Politics on a Monopoly board

From the outset, it is important to test whether Cameron’s motivations for holding a referendum were genuine, or instead an example of a disingenuous attempt to kowtow to the populist wave as a necessary means of clinging onto power. The common perception is that Cameron’s high-stakes ‘cast iron pledge’ in his 2015 manifesto was part of a wider electioneering game plan. The theory suggests that the Liberal Democrats were supposed to provide Cameron with the necessary ‘get out of jail card’ that would afford him the opportunity to renege on his political obligations. This argument requires further analysis: Cameron placed all his hopes in one basket, as though it were merely a game of monopoly, whereby with the simple roll of the dice, his Liberal Democrat partners had to land on six in order for him to survive. Winning without the help of the Liberal Democrats would paradoxically mean losing, ultimately serving to remove Cameron as a player from the game altogether. The UK’s political destiny, does not, and should not, lie on the Monopoly board: because in that game, where the winner takes all, Cameron’s outright victory would therefore represent an unprecedented act of self-destructive misjudgement. Yet, Cameron’s head of communications Craig Oliver argues that this was never Cameron’s game plan: all frontline Tory politicians, including Cameron himself, stated on numerous occasions that the Conservatives ‘would not lead any form of Government’ that did not adhere to the referendum plan. Cameron continues - both privately and publicly - to maintain that the referendum was an important and much needed exercise of British democracy. Therefore, observers, ex post facto, can deduce that Cameron was - when pushed came to shove - prepared to hold the referendum, he just simply hoped that circumstances would deprive him of the opportunity to do so.  

UKIP: The powerful force of fruitcakes and loonies

Despite critical claims of Cameron's false electoral sincerity, the rise of UKIP’s ‘people’s army’ served as the primary catalyst in Cameron’s decision to hold the referendum. The party, founded in 1993, and led by the dangerously charismatic Nigel Farage, threatened to haemorrhage support away from the traditional mainstream British establishment. Once derided as the party of ‘fruitcakes’, UKIP suddenly represented an unwelcome challenge to the Tory Party from the political right. In the 2014 European Elections, UKIP became the first non-major party to win an election in the UK in over a century. Cameron’s Conservatives were humiliated, finishing 3rd in a country well accustomed to the traditional two-horse race. Further exacerbating Cameron’s predicament was the emerging threat of players leaving Team Cameron for the insurgent Team Farage. Formally referred to in Westminster jargon as ‘crossing the floor’, Cameron’s fears proved well-founded, when in 2014 two disgruntled Tory MPs defected to UKIP. In this sense, Cameron calculated wisely: had the referendum not been on the offing, the probability is that this number would have been far greater.

More significantly, however, Cameron could not conceive holding onto power without removing UKIP’s trump card of promising an in/out referendum. In this regard, he was wholly misguided: with the Liberal Democrats following the Western European tradition of being punished as the smaller coalition partner, as well as UKIP voters being fearful of a Milliband government propped up by the SNP, the Conservative Party was on course for victory irrespective of the referendum pledge. Therefore, Cameron and his entourage’s motivations for calling the referendum signify a severe information disconnect in their game strategy: the referendum was superfluous to the requirements of ensuring a 2015 victory. For this very reason, Cameron was not obliged to open Farage and Johnson’s Pandora’s box, which for decades had been filled with London buses painted in the colour of alternative facts. 

The gradual unmasking of Tory Euroscepticism

In 2011, the British public triggered a parliamentary debate on whether the electorate should be granted a referendum on EU membership. 81 Tory MPs defied Cameron’s three-line whip, voting in favour of this public backed initiative1. Forming the ‘81 Group’, the informal caucus of MPs vowed to resist Cameron’s attempt ‘to kick the repatriation of powers into the elephant grass’. The Eurosceptic movement spearheaded by the likes of Sir Bill Cash MP and Peter Bone MP, sought to play on the rampant discontentment that had been bubbling beneath the surface since the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. Although their grievances represented nothing new, the veneer of pro-EU consensus synonymous with Cameron’s leadership forced Cameron to release the Eurosceptic genie, thereby accepting the need for a binary choice: in or out.

If this backbench pressure explains the why, it fails to determine how David Cameron could continue to be so out of touch with his own party members both within Westminster and beyond. Despite the earlier backlash, he woefully underestimated the visceral Eurosceptic tendencies of the Conservative Party, even feigning surprise when his renegotiated package was famously dubbed ‘thin gruel’ by the European Research Group (ERG) leader Jacob Rees-Mogg. Cameron announced the referendum with the expectation that only 40 Tory MPs would defy his leadership by supporting the leave campaign; in reality, the figure was over 130. Cameron, and his second-in-command George Osborne, were too far removed from the political fray to grasp the firmly embedded anti-EU sentiment that pervaded contemporary Conservative Party politics. They erroneously believed they had the monopoly of thought within the party, and that MPs would all march to the Osborne-Cameron beat. Cameron - blinded by hubris - fell victim to cognitive illusion in his risk management. He convinced himself that after his 2015 victory, he had a greater and more persuasive grip on the British electorate. Furthermore, Cameron was categorically of the opinion that he could win over his opponents through a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU. This game-strategy backfired spectacularly: instead of initiating meaningful reform that could pacify and placate the ever-growing demands of his party, the renegotiation – at least from a Eurosceptic perspective – proved the intransigence of the EU and the subjugation of Cameron, who opponents claimed was merely a puppet acting at the behest of EU leaders. The first rule of any game is to know one’s key players: in a catalogue of clumsy miscalculations, Cameron was outplayed by the EU and his Tory backbenchers, with his destiny left in the hands of the British people.  

Cameron: Blindsided by his own imagination

Confirmation bias pervaded Cameron’s game strategy: he was unable to see beyond the constraints of his own opinion and judgement, within which all paths led to his vision and perspective. It was beyond Cameron's capability to conceive that his political objective was in fact a figment of his imagination, with his poor team management hindering his ability to be sufficiently prepared for the potential political eventualities that were beyond his control. For example, in 2014, the Labour party had been the bedrock of vehement pro-EU support, with 97% of Labour MPs supporting Cameron’s quest to remain. Cameron could not have foreseen the election of the arch-Eurosceptic, Jeremy Corbyn, as the party’s leader in 2015. Any other leader in the party’s recent history would have undoubtedly been the star player in gaining remain votes in the party’s working-class heartlands. Instead, Corbyn became a liability for Cameron and the wider remain cause. If the referendum campaign had been a football match, over half the Labour supporters were not sure which side their team’s manager wanted them to support. In addition, whilst it has been established that a CON-LIB coalition 2.0 might have provided Cameron with a safeguard against the referendum, more significantly, the Liberal Democrats’ crushing defeat in 2015 had a far-reaching impact on their ability to maintain their hitherto high media profile. The Liberal Democrats, the UK’s most pro-EU political force, had been reduced to rubble at a time when such a voice was so desperately required. Cameron expected a strong cross-party unity that simply did not materialise. He was thus coerced to assume the unenviable mantra of the pro-EU voice of reason, rendering the 2016 vote a referendum on his leadership rather than Britain’s membership of the EU. Therefore, his rationale and confidence about holding the referendum was in fact built on sand, due to his inability to see beyond the confines of his Westminster bubble.

Cameron forced the UK to play a round of Russian Roulette, yet he abandoned ship, leaving both the UK and the EU to take the bullet in a game that no one ever wins, but one side most certainly loses. Of course, this lose-lose scenario is at odds with this Trump-esque world where politics is increasingly seen through the prism of black and white, winning and losing. Cameron envisaged his game in two rounds: the 2015 election and the subsequent EU referendum. In believing the probability of progressing beyond the first game to be so low, that he would not have to participate in the second, Cameron’s strategy should serve as a warning to future leaders about haphazard short-term game plans with long-term ramifications: indeed Cameron’s political miscalculations snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

One primary miscalculation was that Cameron genuinely believed he could repatriate powers from the EU, and in so doing, assuage the concerns of the ERG within his party, so that they would ultimately support his renegotiated deal to remain. Such an expectation was met with a very disappointing reality: neither the EU nor the hard-line Eurosceptics were willing to dance to Downing Street’s tune. Indeed, Cameron was frustrated that his ‘renegotiation’ fell on deaf ears, and was seemingly surprised that EU leaders brushed off the threat of a potential British exit as an example of pre-match bravado. The EU also played a game with serious miscalculations: they called Cameron’s bluff and lost. Effective game planning requires preparation for all scenarios. Cameron did not calculate for the possibility that the EU might not be willing to cooperate and play ball. Finally, Cameron was a victim of his own success: indeed he won, he gambled, he lost. With the cards stacked against Prime Minister May, the UK appears – as a tribute to Cameron’s legacy - to be stuck in a hellish Brexit game where each player has a different understanding of the rules of the game and its ensuing payoffs. There is a profound sense of irony: Cameron sought to be the Tory leader to settle the European question once and for all. Future Conservative Party leaders should be careful what they wish for.

Références bibliographiques

Voir aussi
© Caroline Maufroid / Sciences Po
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