When Michael Ashcroft published his unflattering biography of David Cameron – you’ll recall that it gave a starring part to the head of a dead pig – the Tory peer fell very ill. It was suggested to one of the prime minister’s closest friends that he wouldn’t be unhappy if his foe were to remain unwell. “Oh no,” laughed the friend. “David wants Ashcroft to die.”
So I don’t believe for a moment that the Tory leader has had a single forgiving feeling in his body towards Boris Johnson since the mayor of London crashed off the fence and into the Out camp, news he communicated to David Cameron in a text sent only just before he announced it to the world. You can put it down to vaulting vanity, naked ambition, a compulsion to gamble or schoolboy competition projected on to the national stage. I doubt the Tory leader wastes too much brain space weighing up the precise mix of motives that animated his rival. No, I think David Cameron just wants Boris to die.
He has staked his survival as prime minister, his place in history and, rather more importantly, his country’s future on this referendum. It is one of those defining moments when a leader finds out who are his foul-weather friends and who are his true enemies. After the first week of campaigning, it is now even more evident that David Cameron is going to have to look beyond the ranks of his own party for allies if he is to be sure of winning this.
Of course, he will be the de facto leader of the In campaign. His game plan is already clear. He will reprise what he did at the general election by presenting himself as the representative of stability and security in a turbulent and uncertain world while painting Boris and the rest of the Outers as a reckless risk with Britain’s future.
Experience suggests that David Cameron will front this sort of campaign rather well. We’d better get used to his attack lines, as we had better also get accustomed to the Outers moaning about scare-mongering, because the Cameron mantra is going to be on a continuous loop from now until the votes are weighed. Investment down. Prices up. Trade hit. Jobs lost. Security compromised. Migration more difficult to control. Terrorists harder to stop. Safety first. He will hammer these messages until they have penetrated the consciousness of the least engaged voter. Pundits will soon be calling his campaign boring and negative. But that strategy confounded their expectations in May 2015 and got him back into Number 10. It will work again, so he hopes, to keep Britain in Europe in June 2016.
There is, though, a critical difference between this referendum campaign and the general election. Then, he had the Tory party united behind him and the Tory press as allies and amplification system. Now Toryworld is vividly split. The majority of Tory activists want out of the EU. The Tory press is very largely lined up on the other side and firing its guns at the Tory leader. Going on for half of Conservative MPs have declared for leaving the EU, a higher number than Downing Street originally bargained for, and there are more Out sympathisers lurking in the government who have not revealed themselves for careerist reasons. The opinion polls, for what they are worth, reckon that Tory voters are pretty much evenly divided between In and Out.
That division was manifest when the prime minister presented his case to the Commons. Received in silence by most of his own side, and then peppered with unfriendly fire from his backbenches, he had to rely on the opposition for supportive noise. It was from there that he won the greatest laughs when he ridiculed the mayor of London.
This underlined just how important it is for David Cameron that Labour, the Lib Dems and the Nationalists campaign for an In vote and mobilise their supporters to the polling stations to cast a ballot for remaining within the EU. On paper, they are all signed up to doing so, but how much energy and conviction they will put into it is still moot.
The cause is evidently not going to get much help from Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader is a life-long sceptic and as such was never anyway going to be a terribly convincing advocate for continued membership. This makes some pro-Europeans in Labour’s ranks despair, but at the level of personal political calculation, I suppose it makes a sort of sense. Mr Corbyn’s career fortunes are not tied to the June referendum, but to the results of the May elections for the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly, mayoralty of London and English local councils.
Those contests, slap bang in the middle of the referendum campaign, are a big complicating factor. At the best of times, British politics is a tribal affair that makes it a psychological struggle for supporters of other parties to beat an enthusiastic drum for the chieftain of the enemy clan, even when they agree with him about a particular issue and even when the question is as momentous as this one. Nick Clegg made a supportive intervention in the Commons and the prime minister thanked the ex Lib Dem leader for it with a reference to him as “my former colleague”. That will remind Lib Dems, if they needed reminding, that their party was ruthlessly cannibalised by the Tories at the election.
In the mind of many a Scottish Nationalist must surely lurk the thought that a defeat for Mr Cameron over Europe could advance their over-arching ambition of independence. For Labour people, there is this dilemma: how much of their time and resources do they divert from fighting against the Tories in the May contests to battle alongside the Tory leader over Europe? Strategists for the In campaign are profoundly anxious about how much of the Labour vote will turn out for the referendum and what Labour supporters will do in the polling stations even if they make the journey.
David Cameron has it in his power to make supporting him in the referendum a more attractive proposition for the opposition parties and their voters. There are things that he can do and would be wise to do to make it easier for them to come to his aid. One is to be careful with his tone. He needs to sound at all times like a leader addressing the whole country, and a leader with the interests of the whole country at heart, rather than just the leader of a Tory faction only talking to the Tory portion of the nation.
It would also make sense to instruct his staff at Number 10 and his colleagues in government to avoid doing anything egregiously offensive to the opposition parties or their voters. It is unrealistic to expect all domestic rough and tumble to stop for the duration of the referendum, but when you need all the support you can get from the opposition, it would be smart for the prime minister to go easy on the partisan aggression. Better still would be to proffer some olive branches.
Relations between government and opposition are not supposed to be sweet, but they are particularly sour at the moment because of the way the Tories have acted since the general election. Two moves have caused particularly intense anger in other parties. One is the trade union legislation currently winding its way through the Lords. This attacks the ability of the unions to raise money for Labour and for political activity more generally while leaving unaddressed the many issues around the way the Tory party is financed.
With this nakedly partisan behaviour, the Tories have broken with the postwar convention that there should be cross-party consensus about changes to party funding. Alan Johnson, the leader of the Labour In campaign, is exhorting the trades unions to “get their chequebooks out” to help with the referendum. He is clearly nervous that they appear resistant to doing so. Many union leaders, even those sympathetic to the cause and fearful of what Brexit would mean for their members, are reluctant to deploy their cash or their organisational muscle to assist David Cameron with his referendum when he is assaulting their ability to raise money for campaigning. If he wants some union help, the prime minister needs to give the unions some incentive to help.
Another self-serving gambit made by the Conservatives since the election has outraged Labour, the Lib Dems and the Nationalists. That is the substantial cut to the “Short money” that supports the activities of the opposition parties in parliament. This blatant device to advantage the government over the opposition was slipped out by George Osborne at the time of his last financial statement back in December.
The chancellor has a budget coming up in March. That would be an appropriate moment to announce that the government has heard the many complaints that this move is vindictively partisan and is thinking again.
David Cameron is going to need the help of the opposition parties to win this referendum. If he is smart, he will reach out to them. He will help himself by making it more comfortable for them to help him. When his own party heaves with enemies, he needs to look elsewhere to find every friend he can get.