AT HOME AND ABROAD: How Cameron got trapped by his own clever strategy

THE prospect of Britain voting to leave the EU in Thursday’s referendum, which some polls have predicted and which would be to everyone’s disadvantage including the Brits themselves, is a classic example of how an act of short-term political expediency can backfire in the longer term.

Prime Minister David Cameron wasn’t thinking long-term when he tossed the promise of a referendum into Britain’s election campaign last year.

He was struggling with a divided Conservative Party facing a challenge on the right from Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). Opinion polls were showing that enough Tory Eurosceptics might vote Ukip to allow the Labour Party to win a majority and become the government. So, Cameron decided to staunch the haemorrhage on his right by promising to hold a referendum on whether to leave or remain in the EU if his party was re-elected to lead the UK.

A cunning ploy, and it worked. The Tories won an outright victory against all the poll predictions. But now Cameron finds himself trapped by his own cunning strategy. Having promised that members of his party could have a free vote in the referendum, he now finds the party deeply divided, with a large body supporting the Leave campaign, while he himself heads up the Remain group.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the referendum, opinion polls are indicating a possible win for Leave, the so-called Brexit campaign, although the pollsters say the race is too close to call. But one thing seems clear. If Brexit wins, Cameron will be under immense pressure to resign as prime minister. He will almost certainly be replaced by his nemesis, Boris Johnson, a former mayor of London, who has led the Brexit campaign.

That in itself would be a disturbing prospect. Johnson is a controversial character, a right-wing libertarian and an unabashed self-promoter, sometimes prone to using racist and homophobic language. A joker with an erratic temperament, who has cultivated a semi-shambolic look with rumpled blond hair — something of a milder British version of the US’s Donald Trump.

I find the possibility of the two of them emerging as leaders of the two most influential Western nuclear powers, with France’s Marine le Pen possibly emerging as a third next year, deeply disturbing.

But the more immediate worry for us is the economic effect Britain leaving the EU would have on SA. The EU is our most important trading partner, with Britain the second biggest in Europe after Germany. So, any weakening of both Britain and the EU would be a further blow to our already perilous economic situation.

Aside from the weakening of the partners, SA would have to renegotiate all its trade deals with Europe and separately with Britain, a time-consuming and unpredictable process that would aggravate and extend the difficult transition phase.

In fact, all expert indications are pointing south for everybody concerned if Brexit wins. Yet the Brexit lead has held steady for weeks. Its leaders say they are “sick of experts” and want to go with their own sentiments on the issue. But sentiment is not a good basis for serious decisions with long-term implications.

In a powerful and well-reasoned editorial The Times of London noted that the British treasury has projected an “immediate and profound” economic downturn in the short term if Brexit wins, and a 15-year outlook of less trade, less investment and less growth than if Britain were to stay in the EU. The Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and nine out of 10 economists who have been polled, all agree.

Political analysts fear that if Britain leaves the EU, it might give rise to tensions between other European member countries, leading to more Russian adventurism along Europe’s eastern fringes. With that in mind, US President Barack Obama has implored British voters to opt for remaining in the union, as has German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In a remarkable indication of Germany’s concern, the country’s most influential news magazine, Der Spiegel, published a 20-page English language edition, with the cover-page headline, “Please don’t leave us”.

Brexit would also lead to massive individual disruption. There are 3-million EU citizens living and working in Britain, and about 2-million Britons living in other EU countries. The status of all those people will become more uncertain if Britain leaves.

Moreover, as The Times points out, the UK has done well in Europe. In the 43 years since the country joined what was then the European Economic Community, per capita gross domestic product has grown 103% — faster than France, Germany and the US. Only youth unemployment has grown worse, but that is a global phenomenon standing at 21% across all Europe.

Not least, as I have noted in earlier columns, quitting the EU could also lead to the break-up of Britain itself. Indications are that a majority of Scottish voters want to stay in the EU, so they may demand another referendum on secession and break with the UK. There would then have to be border posts along the English-Scottish border, with Scotland in the EU and England out.

Ireland would be physically bifurcated. Ireland is an independent state and an EU member, which will want to stay that way. But Ulster, its six Protestant states in the north, are a part of the UK and would leave with it if Brexit wins. Another national amputation that would reduce Great Britain to Little England (plus Wales alone), a shadow of its once-mighty imperial status.

Yet the Brexiteers seem unmoved by all these warnings. They claim they are scaremonger tactics and that the economic consequences will not be all that bad. But I suspect the major force driving the Brexit campaign is immigration, a xenophobic reaction to the flood of refugees from upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa pouring into the EU, and thus having easier access to Britain.

No-one speaks much about this, but it is there. The main Brexit argument is that EU bureaucrats in Brussels are wasteful and interfere too much in member countries’ domestic affairs, leading to the claim that Britain is losing control of its own destiny.

It is an emotional appeal that Johnson has infused with a romantic touch by calling on Britons to rise up and reclaim their freedom. As The Times notes in its editorial, that is a more inspiring call than simply asking people to stick with the status quo.

Conceding that there are indeed many irritating factors in the way EU bureaucrats interfere in the affairs of member states, the newspaper suggests Cameron should make it clear that if his side wins, he will seize the moment to galvanise other disgruntled allies for a new assault on waste, red tape and antidemocratic interference. That, it feels, should be his final rallying call.

On Thursday, we shall know whether it has had any effect.

Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail

David Cameron delivers a speech. Picture: REUTERS/LEON NEAL

David Cameron delivers a speech. Picture: REUTERS/LEON NEAL

THE prospect of Britain voting to leave the EU in Thursday’s referendum, which some polls have predicted and which would be to everyone’s disadvantage including the Brits themselves, is a classic example of how an act of short-term political expediency can backfire in the longer term.

Prime Minister David Cameron wasn’t thinking long-term when he tossed the promise of a referendum into Britain’s election campaign last year.

He was struggling with a divided Conservative Party facing a challenge on the right from Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip). Opinion polls were showing that enough Tory Eurosceptics might vote Ukip to allow the Labour Party to win a majority and become the government. So, Cameron decided to staunch the haemorrhage on his right by promising to hold a referendum on whether to leave or remain in the EU if his party was re-elected to lead the UK.

A cunning ploy, and it worked. The Tories won an outright victory against all the poll predictions. But now Cameron finds himself trapped by his own cunning strategy. Having promised that members of his party could have a free vote in the referendum, he now finds the party deeply divided, with a large body supporting the Leave campaign, while he himself heads up the Remain group.

Meanwhile, on the eve of the referendum, opinion polls are indicating a possible win for Leave, the so-called Brexit campaign, although the pollsters say the race is too close to call. But one thing seems clear. If Brexit wins, Cameron will be under immense pressure to resign as prime minister. He will almost certainly be replaced by his nemesis, Boris Johnson, a former mayor of London, who has led the Brexit campaign.

That in itself would be a disturbing prospect. Johnson is a controversial character, a right-wing libertarian and an unabashed self-promoter, sometimes prone to using racist and homophobic language. A joker with an erratic temperament, who has cultivated a semi-shambolic look with rumpled blond hair — something of a milder British version of the US’s Donald Trump.

I find the possibility of the two of them emerging as leaders of the two most influential Western nuclear powers, with France’s Marine le Pen possibly emerging as a third next year, deeply disturbing.

But the more immediate worry for us is the economic effect Britain leaving the EU would have on SA. The EU is our most important trading partner, with Britain the second biggest in Europe after Germany. So, any weakening of both Britain and the EU would be a further blow to our already perilous economic situation.

Aside from the weakening of the partners, SA would have to renegotiate all its trade deals with Europe and separately with Britain, a time-consuming and unpredictable process that would aggravate and extend the difficult transition phase.

In fact, all expert indications are pointing south for everybody concerned if Brexit wins. Yet the Brexit lead has held steady for weeks. Its leaders say they are “sick of experts” and want to go with their own sentiments on the issue. But sentiment is not a good basis for serious decisions with long-term implications.

In a powerful and well-reasoned editorial The Times of London noted that the British treasury has projected an “immediate and profound” economic downturn in the short term if Brexit wins, and a 15-year outlook of less trade, less investment and less growth than if Britain were to stay in the EU. The Bank of England, the US Federal Reserve, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development and nine out of 10 economists who have been polled, all agree.

Political analysts fear that if Britain leaves the EU, it might give rise to tensions between other European member countries, leading to more Russian adventurism along Europe’s eastern fringes. With that in mind, US President Barack Obama has implored British voters to opt for remaining in the union, as has German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In a remarkable indication of Germany’s concern, the country’s most influential news magazine, Der Spiegel, published a 20-page English language edition, with the cover-page headline, “Please don’t leave us”.

Brexit would also lead to massive individual disruption. There are 3-million EU citizens living and working in Britain, and about 2-million Britons living in other EU countries. The status of all those people will become more uncertain if Britain leaves.

Moreover, as The Times points out, the UK has done well in Europe. In the 43 years since the country joined what was then the European Economic Community, per capita gross domestic product has grown 103% — faster than France, Germany and the US. Only youth unemployment has grown worse, but that is a global phenomenon standing at 21% across all Europe.

Not least, as I have noted in earlier columns, quitting the EU could also lead to the break-up of Britain itself. Indications are that a majority of Scottish voters want to stay in the EU, so they may demand another referendum on secession and break with the UK. There would then have to be border posts along the English-Scottish border, with Scotland in the EU and England out.

Ireland would be physically bifurcated. Ireland is an independent state and an EU member, which will want to stay that way. But Ulster, its six Protestant states in the north, are a part of the UK and would leave with it if Brexit wins. Another national amputation that would reduce Great Britain to Little England (plus Wales alone), a shadow of its once-mighty imperial status.

Yet the Brexiteers seem unmoved by all these warnings. They claim they are scaremonger tactics and that the economic consequences will not be all that bad. But I suspect the major force driving the Brexit campaign is immigration, a xenophobic reaction to the flood of refugees from upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa pouring into the EU, and thus having easier access to Britain.

No-one speaks much about this, but it is there. The main Brexit argument is that EU bureaucrats in Brussels are wasteful and interfere too much in member countries’ domestic affairs, leading to the claim that Britain is losing control of its own destiny.

It is an emotional appeal that Johnson has infused with a romantic touch by calling on Britons to rise up and reclaim their freedom. As The Times notes in its editorial, that is a more inspiring call than simply asking people to stick with the status quo.

Conceding that there are indeed many irritating factors in the way EU bureaucrats interfere in the affairs of member states, the newspaper suggests Cameron should make it clear that if his side wins, he will seize the moment to galvanise other disgruntled allies for a new assault on waste, red tape and antidemocratic interference. That, it feels, should be his final rallying call.

On Thursday, we shall know whether it has had any effect.

Sparks is a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail

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