The worst thing for a politician is to run out of options. So said Francois Mitterrand, the late French President, without a doubt a master in the dark arts of political ambiguity.
As the EU referendum approaches, it is clear that the Cameron and Osborne tandem finds itself in a tight spot. Their defence of the EU is becoming increasingly shrill. One conjures up the four horses of the apocalypse and the other makes predictions about the state of the UK economy in 2030 with a precision that robs them of any credibility.
Backed by the financial power of many multinationals, but bereft of troops on the ground, they have taken a very high risk strategy. On the issue of Brexit, they have left themselves few options. Many of the polls are tied and time is running out.
The Remain camp’s leaders face five broad possible scenarios:
The first is an easy victory. This would burnish the pair’s credentials. They would gain renewed authority and put the EU topic to bed for a few years at least. However, it is quite probable that a big Remain vote would encourage the EU’s federalists to move full steam ahead for “more Europe”. That spells more powers to Brussels, and more troubles in the engine room of the Tory party.
The second is a tight victory for Remain. Given that the large majority of their party backs an exit from the EU, Cameron and Osborne will be seen as having scuppered the UK’s only chance to make its own laws once again. Their party will probably not be in a very forgiving mood.
The third scenario is a tie. The fourth and fifth scenarios are either a tight or an easy victory for Leave. All these would be fatal for the Prime Minister and his chancellor. Having uncorked the genie from the Eurobottle, where it has been imprisoned for over 40 years, both seem at a loss over how to control it. They played the Eurosceptic card on the door-step for decades but now find a party membership and a substantial part of the electorate tone-deaf to their new-found euro-enthusiasm.
In other words, there is only one scenario in five in which Cameron and Osborne can thrive. The odds are looking increasingly less appealing by the day.
Further, as their calls to remain become more strident, their credibility and prestige drain away. This is one of the reasons why fellow pro-EU political travellers have been so lukewarm and defensive in their campaigning.
Tentatively, home secretary Theresa May has tried to position herself as the voice of reason on the Remain side by making the obvious point that the UK can thrive outside of the EU. With most of the countries in the world not in the EU, this statement deserves no intellectual prizes. But in the current febrile state of the Remain campaign, it does sound refreshingly honest. She subsequently lost her audience, however, by claiming that the UK would be safer in the EU, seemingly blind to current developments on the continent.
Others on the fast track to the top Tory team, such as business secretary Sajid Javid, have shied away from the fight. Torn between his Eurosceptism and his ambitions, he backed Cameron and lost his party’s trust.
Both May and Javid have paid a heavy political price. Once both could feasibly have claimed to be contenders for the leadership of the Conservative Party. This is no longer true.
The main issue for the Remain side is simply that the EU is visibly failing. As a result, it can only sell abstractions and technicalities while ignoring the much more serious social disruptions that EU institutions have engendered across Europe. Unable to look at the horizon, Remain loses itself in the detail and hopes against hope that the future will bring better news.
The best that can be said about the EU is that it is flawed. On this point, inners and outers are close to unanimity. The evidence is there for all with eyes who want to see: low growth, high unemployment and increasing political instability. The question for those sitting on the fence is: can the EU be reformed enough to be workable? On past experience, the answer is not encouraging.
If the answer is that the EU cannot be reformed enough to follow through on its oft-repeated aims of delivering growth, jobs and stability then a pragmatist ought to have no trouble voting the failed institution down. There is no need to be apprehensive about life after a vote to Leave. There are plenty of countries across the world that are smaller in size, economic strength and power projection than the UK that are not in the EU and that have been successful at providing for their peoples.
But Cameron and Osborne, not wise enough perhaps to heed Mitterrand’s advice that a politician’s duty is always to have options, took sides when they could have remained above the fray. They chose to back a deeply unpopular project and, as a result, painted themselves into a very tight corner.
Worst of all, they have gambled all on, at best, a pyrrhic victory. In desperation, their strategy seems to focus mainly on making increasingly outlandish claims in the hope that fear beats aspiration. One thing is certain: whatever the results, the political landscape after 23 June will change drastically.