If David Cameron is so smart, why is he waging war on his referendum allies? | Polly Toynbee

Does David Cameron sincerely want to win this referendum? He gives every appearance of ignoring what it takes – and time is short. Without Labour votes, Britain will be out of Europe and Cameron out of office as the most disastrous prime minister since Lord North lost America.

Labour canvassers door-knocking for May’s elections find their voters to be mainly EU inners, but many see this as Cameron’s campaign – and itch to give him a bloody nose. They only need to sit on their hands on referendum day to watch his own Tory bastards kicking his head in for them. They’d be cutting off their noses and the nation’s too, but they may be sorely tempted.

Flashman bully at prime minister’s questions, entitled and spoilt, Cameron has never had to fight for anything much, sauntering into the premiership “because I thought I’d be good at it”. But now he faces the fight of his life. For the first time he confronts that wall of sound from his erstwhile myrmidons, the entire Tory press. Day after day they bellow anti-EU, anti-migrant, anti-Cameron stories. “Welcome to our world!” a leading shadow cabinet member says, strongly pro-EU but unable to resist a chortle.

This is what Labour faces at every election, and now Cameron gets a blast of that toxic injustice. For Murdoch, Dacre and the Barclay brothers this has become a thuggish trial of strength: who rules, the elected government or them?

Surrounded by unaccustomed enemies, Cameron needs new allies. “Friends” is impossible, but he must strike up a temporary truce with Labour voters. Instead, he has embarked on an unprecedented anti-democratic assault on the very idea of opposition, seizing on Labour’s weakness like some power-mad dictator, just because he can.

In the Lords his trade union bill’s key purpose is to neuter unions by preventing them from raising funds effectively through the check-off system in pay slips, stripping away Labour’s prime funding base. At the same time George Osborne is cutting the Short money that funds the operation of politics, by 24% for Labour over the parliament, with no equalising reform to the Tories’ funding by plutocrats. Labour in power tried to reform funding but scrupulously insisted on cross-party consent, which the Tories of course refused.

Now add in Cameron’s stuffing of the Lords. No prime minister has added so many so fast – 244, with 56 since the last election. Now he plans another 40, angered at the loss of the Lords’ inbuilt Tory majority, though every Labour government has always faced a Tory Lords stoically, without creating hundreds of Labour peers.

What’s more, Cameron is axing 50 MPs to “cut the cost of politics”, while swelling the Lords to a colossal 816. It’s gerrymandering, since reducing MPs abolishes many more Labour than Tory seats, and representatives from the north, Scotland and Wales are replaced by more from the rich Tory south. The Strathclyde review plans to diminish what the Lords can debate.

Add in the shocking destruction of the electoral register, where at least 800,000 have been knocked off. The list, already missing many poorer and younger voters, now requires individual registrations, with students no longer block-registered by colleges. Many will dash to register for the June EU referendum – but Cameron forbids use of this new fuller register to re-draw constituency boundaries, ignoring the electoral commission’s protests. The net effect of all this means Labour will need a far greater swing to win than in 1997.

But it seems neutering opposition in parliament is not enough: charities and trade unions have been gagged in the year before elections. Now any charity in receipt of a grant is to be silenced permanently, to stop voices trusted by the public revealing the effects of government cuts. Anti-democratic and authoritarian, all this is designed to cripple opposition.

In this climate of hostility, Cameron seeks to woo Labour voters to save his bacon. Chris Bryant, the shadow leader of the house, is considering sabotage and revolt. By withdrawing all co-operation with Tory whips, Labour can make the government’s life hell, with ambushes on votes, forced all-night debates, and filibusters on the finance bill after this month’s budget.

One example: the Tories have no majority on the members’ estimates committee, which allots parliamentary money. This means all MPs’ committees can be grounded, with no spending on foreign trips. Other committees can be rendered inquorate – stymied – if Labour fails to turn up.

Expect sudden votes when Tory MPs are meeting or at a Downing Street reception. Calling unexpected votes takes only a few Labour MPs, while the government needs all its members at the ready. Spanners can be hurled in the works in myriad ways. Cameron’s hydra-headed assault justifies wrecking tactics; he should ask himself if total war is how to win the referendum.

Britain’s future in Europe is too serious to risk for short-term party advantage. Cameron will be gone anyway – but Britain would be out for ever. Labour’s in campaign is penniless: Alan Johnson needs ringfenced donations, so Cameron and the all-party Stronger Ins must redirect donors to him.

Humble pie is a dish unknown to this prime minister, but he had better try some. He can draw back from these measures. Remove the check-off clause from the trade union bill. Keep Short money rising with inflation. Let colleges register students to vote. Invest in a major voter-registration campaign – and let the boundary commission use the post-referendum register to redraw constituencies. Abandon the Strathclyde restrictions on Lords’ powers – and stop stacking the red benches with Tories.

It would be wise for Osborne – whose career hangs by the same thread in this referendum – to eschew a deliberately provocative political budget on 16 March. Hostilities will never cease. How could they when you look at the Tory devastation of local government, the NHS and public services? But self-preservation requires Cameron and Osborne to back off.

Ask Downing Street how likely that is, and you begin to hear an inkling of a new tone. Remember, they say, how adept Cameron is at winning elections. He’s a smart man. He’s listening. So let’s see if he can be a one-nation leader, if only for this referendum. And eat up his humble pie.

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