Why did David Cameron decide to hold the EU referendum?

In 2012 Cameron used the promise of a referendum to manage Conservative opinion, undermine Ukip and achieve a new European settlement. In this prize-winning essay, Patrick Law looks back at that fateful decision

Wednesday 24 November 2021 21:30
<p>Cameron gambled his premiership on holding an EU referendum – and lost </p>

Cameron gambled his premiership on holding an EU referendum – and lost

The paradox of David Cameron’s premiership is that he wanted to stop his party’s obsession with the European Union yet it came to define his term in office. Before becoming Conservative Party leader, Cameron’s political career had already been marked by the issue. Working in Conservative Central Office he witnessed the resignation of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister, caused in part by her growing hostility to the EU. In 1992, as special adviser to Norman Lamont, the chancellor, Cameron experienced the turmoil of sterling’s suspension from the European exchange rate mechanism. Then, as special adviser to Michael Howard, the home secretary, he watched Conservative divisions damage John Major’s premiership after the signing of the Maastricht Treaty.

After three election losses, when Cameron became leader, he urged his party to “stop banging on about Europe” and focus on the numerous concerns that voters ranked above the EU. He advocated this view while holding moderately Eurosceptic views, supporting EU membership but against further integration and seeking opportunities for reform. This positioning had helped him secure the Witney constituency nomination ahead of the 2001 election. Four years after becoming an MP, he used this scepticism tactically in the party leadership contest, advocating that Conservative MEPs should separate from the European People’s Party (EPP), the mainstream block of right-wing parties, because of the EPP’s federalist commitments.

Cameron rarely felt secure as leader and accepted he did not do enough to manage the rift between the leadership and backbenches

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