Three key miscalculations of David Cameron regarding the EU membership referendum and how he could h


Brexit and its ramifications have become some of the main subjects discussed in British politics. Today, years after the referendum took place, many questions regarding the administrative process for Britain to leave the EU, ‘remain’ unanswered. Generally, it has been a scrutinising and complex endeavour. But, how did Britain get here? One may give a variety of answers to this question, ranging from the country’s political culture, to its politics after the ‘enlargement of the EU’. This paper will attempt to discuss the question from the perspective of three significant miscalculations made by David Cameron before and during the referendum.


Recently, we have observed the struggles of Theresa May, in trying to pass her Brexit proposal, and much like for David Cameron before her, challenges and sources of antagonism have emerged from many sides, including from her own Conservative Party, the Opposition, the European Commission, and British society (Stewart and Walker, 2018; Thomas et al., 2018). Of course, conceiving, designing and implementing such a plan is not trivial, but the ways in which the last two British prime ministers gone about it has been paved with considerable miscalculations, which one may argue could not have been completely avoided, but are nonetheless not entirely dismissible. Theresa May’s government has not fallen, and the Brexit conundrum has not been resolved. Consequently, one may wait to see what she might achieve in the next few months or even years. David Cameron, on the other hand, is clearly finished with contributing to this agenda (BBC, 2018), so for now this essay will only analyse some of his key miscalculations.

A diverse array of narratives have been put forward regarding the European Union (EU) membership referendum in the United Kingdom (UK), concerning its purposes, process, outcomes and the miscalculations of David Cameron, his party, the Remain Campaign, the opposition and even the EU. In this essay I have chosen to discuss a few of the arguments offered to point out three miscalculations and the alternatives that could have been adopted, not only by David Cameron and his government, in the first case, but also by the Remain campaign. I also considered, more broadly and in a less intensive manner, the role of the EU. I will touch upon the very decision/pledge of adopting the referendum, the EU identity/brand within National States, and the (mis)treatment of the immigration issue, in a context of the immigrant crisis during the actual referendum campaign.

Specific miscalculation: 22nd of January 2013 - Pledge to hold a referendum

On January 22nd 2013, in a long awaited speech, the then Prime Minister David Cameron, running for re-election, declares that if the Conservatives win the coming election, in 2015, they would seek to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU and give the British people a “simple choice,” between staying in the EU under the terms established, or leaving (BBC, 2016a). This was a miscalculation of the implications of this statement for the country's future stability, a miscalculation of a referendum outcome, and presumably a misinterpretation of how it would play out within the Conservative Party.

According to David Cameron:

(...)"disillusionment" with the EU was "at an all-time high" and "simply asking the British people to carry on accepting a European settlement over which they have had little choice" was likely to accelerate calls for the UK to leave.( BBC in 2013)

Despite this declaration there were concerns that the prime minister was actually just making an electoral gamble due to the growing support of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the polls, at the expense of the Conservatives (Helm, 2013). Simultaneously, in hindsight, one might also consider the 2010 general election, which brought a new generation of Eurosceptic Conservatives to Parliament. This should not be overlooked - in a vote for a motion to call for a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the EU in 2011 and a rebellion against the EU’s multiannual financial framework (MFF) in 2012, Eurosceptic backbenchers were rebelliously exerting growing pressure on the Prime Minister.

There are reasons to support Cameron's decision. Andrew Glencross (2016) has associated the perceived need for a referendum on such a matter with the ‘post-democratic dilemma’ of Western liberal democracies which have pushed governments to take decisions that reinforce the people's true sovereignty or direct democracy, as opposed to the now in crisis, government sovereignty, within representative democracy. Lacey (2018), discusses the support national referendums have among Europeans as a legitimate device to ratify treaties, but also the specific design of these referendums and their implications. Hence, the UK Referendum design, which is ad hoc, is one that may become a tool for a political party or representative to gain a political advantage or alleviate pressures (Lacey, 2018). These referendums, as opposed to mandatory ones, “are not legally required, but rather called at the will of political representatives” (Lacey, 2018 p. 531).

Consequently, the decision may have been framed as a need for the British people, given that the last referendum regarding the EU was held in 1975 and referendums have become part of the norm in discussions regarding EU membership in other member-states (Beach, 2012; Lacey, 2018). However, growing conflict within the Conservative party in relation to the EU membership, as well as the pressure to win the general election which was being overturned by a party whose existence was established by anti-EU feeling, was not trivial. Furthermore, the 22nd of January 2013 is the key moment to be considered because it hooks the referendum proposal to the new, possible, winning candidacy of the Conservatives. Arguably, this makes the proposal stronger than considerations associated to previous promises on a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, for example.

The alternative could have been a broader involvement with the different actors inside and outside the UK and addressing the issues concerning Eurosceptics, instead of telling conservatives at home to stop “banging on about Europe” (Matthijs, 2013; Bale, 2016). Arguably, the decisions taken by David Cameron were both isolated at the level of the EU, and isolating of Eurosceptics at the national level.

David Cameron seemed to have disregarded the importance and relevance of alliances within the EU block to put forward concerns present not only within UK politics, but also in other member states. Euroscepticism is not an exclusive feature of UK politics (Hooghe & Marks, 2007), and the issues put forward by them should have been considered at a more institutional level. Ex-ante coordination is of great importance in such political arrangements, and David Cameron seems to have made little to no use of such a tool. In 2012, for example, European Council tried (unsuccessfully) to reach a deal concerning the EU’s multiannual financial framework (MFF). Britain was completely out of touch in trying to put forward its own agenda at the expense of agreements to take the continent out of the crisis unleashed in 2008.

Furthermore, Euroscepticism within the UK and the conservative party is not new. Alexandre-Collier (2015) has associated this Euroscepticism within the party to the strength of Margaret Thatcher's rhetoric on the EU, and endurance of her ideas and ideals within the conservative party. Hence, she may not have been a Eurosceptic in the way one sees it manifested today within the party, but she nonetheless contributed to what it has become today.

Similarly, within UK borders, an opportunity was missed to engaged Eurosceptics in government and discuss their concerns before adopting the referendum alternative. David Cameron may have underestimated the relevance of anti-EU feelings in his party and the Conservative electorate. Governance strategies require compromises and adaptation (Auel & Benz, 2005)outside and inside one’s party. Simply offering roles to Eurosceptic backbenchers and engaging them in government could have changed the scenario of EU membership discussion. Concurrently, bringing the debate to government in the form of a committee or even a team to renegotiate the terms of the British EU membership could have guaranteed more support to any British prime ministerial proposals with the EU. The conditions David Cameron managed to secure on occasions, such as his 2015 letter to the European Council, were not trivial but were downplayed by the perception of their outcomes, not only by Tory Eurosceptics, but the media in general.

Timeless miscalculation: The problem of perception of the EU

A structured and well-designed positive case of the EU was lacking in the referendum campaign, because of decisions made by David Cameron and the Remain campaign as a whole. Albeit, one might argue that the EU does not have a positive case in general, because of its lack of identity and brand of communication. Andrew Glencross (2016) discusses the ‘missed opportunities’ committed during the referendum campaign, when the Remain camp failed to communicate a positive message for staying in the EU or to ‘discuss Britain’s contribution to shaping European integration.’ In this section I argue that despite the identity crisis of Britain as well as the EU itself, Remain should have engaged in a more positive campaign of the institution.

The current identity crisis Europeans are facing, which seems to have escalated recently is not confined to Britain and it is also not restricted to the timing of the British referendum. The construction of, and challenges around the EU’s identity, have often been subjected to scrutiny (Stråth 2002; Blokker, 2008). Currently, the EU no longer benefits from its post-war period purpose relating to unity, prosperity and peace, which also provided for a more structured identity. Today, its goals have become more ambiguous (Ham 2005). At the same time, it is not a nation state, which means it lacks characteristics such as indivisible sovereignty and a clear identity (Schmidt, 2004). Hence, the EU has failed to offer a consistent identity with which citizens can identify, because of reasons such as its lack of defined purpose and complex organizational structure. Moreover, one may also argue that it lacks a clear leadership, or even structure, within its complex network of institutions (Tömmel and Verdun 2017) which often confuses citizens.

Additionally, the EU is often associated with excessive bureaucracy and elites (Ivaldi et al., 2017, Moore 2017). Most people do not know all the dimensions in which the EU affects their lives and how their countries contribute to, but also benefit from, the EU. The concept of the “Brussels bubble”, constrains both the engagement of Europeans citizens and the credibility around the EU’s representation (Santis 2014; Baygert 2015, 146).

Those are massive problems to be resolved in one referendum campaign. However, they could have been addressed incrementally through a positive case of the EU. The UK has been an important leader within the EU. It has been a main actor driving policies and has enjoyed over-representation within its public administrative bodies, but this has not been made clear to British citizens. When these feelings seem to have started to escalate as well as during the campaign, British governments from 2001 until today could have mentioned that the EU is about a study exchange, and freedom of movement for work, as examples. According to the EU website between 2012-2013, 14 572 British students studied and worked abroad, and received grants from the EU to contribute towards the costs of living. Simultaneously, figures from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) have shown that most people living outside the UK, within the EU (2/3) are of working age and not retirees living in sunny destinations. These people have benefited from great mobility, state benefits and public services because of the EU agreements. The EU is also a major investor in research - as an example, it invests “over GBP 151.2 million (EUR 180 million) per year in cancer research” (EU, 2018). The UK, as a major player on cancer research within Europe, has benefited from the advancements put forward.

There are many examples that could have been used, and may have brought the EU closer to people’s daily lives, not as an elitist and bureaucratic project, but as an institution that is also providing goods and services through its collaborative nature. Simultaneously, the UK is not merely a spectator, but in many instances a leader of the EU project and its policies.

Understanding the EU, its purposes and contributions was a key variable missing during the referendum, but it is also a key variable in general in support of the EU. One might be, or become, sceptical of it after getting to know it better, but misunderstanding it remains a crucial variable driving Euroscepticism. David Cameron seems either to have overestimated people’s knowledge of the EU, or underestimated the potential damage a lack of knowledge of its funding and benefits could cause. As we saw during the campaign, it was possible to capitalise on this lack of knowledge by putting forward discourses which associated the EU with an investment with no returns. As such, the assumption was that if this investment was interrupted, other areas within the country could be benefited without disturbance to policy and services inside the UK.

Campaign miscalculation: Seriousness and Relevance of the Immigration issue

Lastly, concerning the actual referendum campaign, one of the main miscalculations discussed is the adopted (mis)treatment of immigration (Portes, 2016; Gavin 2018), as citizen’s perceptions of it became a decisive component of their decision-making (Hobolt, 2016). One might argue that Nigel Farage made immigration the defining issue of the campaign (BBC, 2016b), and its mishandling was very costly to the Remain camp. The poster featuring Syrian and other refugees and immigrants walking towards diverse European countries epitomized the issue in the referendum campaign. Yet, this is not a recent controversy considering that “immigration has long been a salient and disputed issue in British politics” - from the influx of Indian refugees in the middle of the nineties, to the influx from India, the Middle East and Africa today. At the same time within the EU, immigration has become a central economic and political salient issue since the enlargement (Portes, 2016 14), even though free movement was a founding principle.

After the recent immigration crisis, which started in 2015, the issue has again escalated and categories such as refugees, asylum seekers, migrants, as well as EU and non-EU influx (which can be permanent or not), have been muddled within the political discourse and British citizen’s perceptions (Blinder, 2015). As demonstrated by Blinder (2015) even before the crisis, ‘imagined immigration’ had an impact on British citizen’s perceptions of the issue, with overestimation and underestimation of the different reasons for migration (Figure 1).

Source: Blinder, S. (2015) ‘Imagined Immigration: The Impact of Different Meanings of ‘Immigrants’ in Public Opinion and Policy Debates in Britain‘, Political Studies, 63(1): 80-100

Simultaneously, the idea that refugees and non-EU immigrants could just ‘walk into’ Britain, which is very misleading, inflicted terrible consequences in conversations concerning freedom of movement within the EU. It has not been made clear that the freedom of movement which has been fostered is the freedom to work and study, a right which is also for UK citizens. A positive case for immigration would have attempted to clarify these misunderstandings. However, it could not have been restricted to the narratives suggested above, as support for the EU was already higher among demographics who were particularly more likely to benefit from these freedoms, such as university graduates and higher earners (Ashcroft and Bevir, 2016). Arguments would also have had to appeal to the so called ‘losers of globalizations’ (Hobolt, 2016), as the Leave option “was systematically higher in regions hit harder by economic globalization” (Colantone & Stanig, 2018). It would have been interesting to have made a positive case for immigration by highlighting its benefits for Britain’s research towards health issues, as well as showing how highly skilled a large portion of the influx of immigration from inside and outside of the EU is, as British people seem to “make clear distinctions between types of migrants with the highly skilled preferred to the unskilled” (Blinder and Richard, 2019, p. 2)

Finally, while immigration was a strong predictor for opposition to UK membership in the EU, today, post-Brexit, Leavers as well as Remainers have softened their view towards immigration according to a Briefing done by the Migration Observatory at Oxford University (2018). It is no longer considered Britain’s ‘most important issue’, as it was the case between 2001 and mid-2016. Now Europe/EU as well as the NHS are more likely to be mentioned in this category. This is important because it probably demonstrates that the issue really escalated to its “limits”, during the Referendum campaign. Certainly, David Cameron could not have predicted the refugee crisis, but could have maybe foreseen its implications to a nation such as Britain. Furthermore, this is probably not a finished discussion in British politics, the report ‘Immigration policy: Basis for Building Consensus’, from the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee 2017/2019 stresses the need for government to provide a clearer explanation of “the different types of immigration and the policy frameworks that govern them”, as well as to actively contest misconceptions around immigration.


In this essay I have chosen to focus on three key miscalculations or mishandled situations of David Cameron; the pledge to hold a referendum assuming its outcome could have been predicted and beneficial for him and probably for the management of his party; underestimating the importance of Euroscepticism for the present and future of Britain within the EU; and underestimating the relevance of the immigration issue for the outcome of the EU referendum. This list is not exhaustive, and within the suggestions made, other aspects could have been considered. Finally, the Prime Minister seems to have mishandled and misread the why’s, how's and what's in the framework provided regarding the EU referendum.


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