THE BLOG

Sleepwalking Into Brexit

18/02/2016 21:54 GMT | Updated 16/02/2017 10:12 GMT

We might not have long to wait until the Prime Minister announces the date of the European referendum and the basis of the deal that has finally been agreed. But what is clear is that if the pro-membership campaign does not get some momentum going soon then we will sleepwalk into Brexit.

The first decisions that anyone will be interested in is which members of the Cabinet will campaign to come out of Europe. Despite this, Cameron will have a largely united Cabinet for a number of domestic political reasons not least positioning to become the next leader, the next Prime Minister and the chance, as they would see it, to easily win in 2020. There is a level of confidence about the Conservative Party and a desire not to waste a golden chance for a long term in government. This too means that many backbenchers will not wish to upset their chances of promotion.

This is, however, to ignore the role of party members. The media is having a field day drawing a divide between members of the Parliamentary Labour Party and members of the party who, it is suggested, back Jeremy Corbyn. Whereas Corbyn is therefore at one with his members, Cameron is increasingly detached from his. His relationship with them has never been that warm - from his 'hug a hoodie' days through to backing gay marriage, Cameron has often been at odds with his membership.

Cameron's comments that his MP's should ignore their local constituencies when deciding on how to vote in the referendum was a failure on several levels. In the first instance, he faced a massive backlash. It was also an explicit recognition that the PM cannot bring his own party members with him. What this says about the future of the Conservative Party in the event of an 'in' vote can only be guessed.

For MPs of both the main parties the outcome of their leaders' relationship with members could be the same - de-selection. So maybe the Conservative Party should not be quite so confident about the future.

It is also the case that the renegotiation process has not been designed to reassure the voters. The process can be described as one in which it was unclear what was going to be negotiated on, then a brief list of demands was published where there was speculation about whether any of those are really going to be delivered.

Now it emerges that the European Parliament could change the terms of a deal after a UK referendum. These new details demonstrate a lack of clarity and also a lack of control over the process. Neither will help the pro cause. Instead of fully explaining process from the outset, the pro campaign are constantly on the back foot and it is the leavers who are providing the information about the process. This is not the way to build trust.

Earlier in the discussions, a similar issue arose over whether Treaty change was needed. It soon became apparent that this wasn't possible in the timescales that the Prime Minister wanted to adhere to. It also wasn't made clear that if a Treaty change were to happen that it would need to be ratified by the other Member States, some of who would require a referendum.

We are about to enter a period of 'the doorstep battle'. However, whether the parties and the members will be up for even more campaigning post May, after the elections in London, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland as well as for local government, can be questioned. Whilst the pro-membership campaign may believe UKIP is in a decline from its pre-2010 high point, there is no yet knowing how bad things could get for Labour or how hardy the new members are.

It is thought that some of them are returners, and could be very active but it could also be suggested that a swathe of the £3 members simply joined to get involved in the leadership election and to get Corbyn into the leadership.

A devastating set of election results in May for Labour could deliver a blow to any enthusiasm to go out and campaign again. So the May elections could have a direct impact on the outcome of the European referendum as well.

The media campaign will get bitter. Many of the newspapers, less so the broadsheets, have set out their positions already and are campaigning hard to get out of Europe. The pro-campaign has its job set out and whilst they will do their fact checking and responses, that assumes anyone is listening (or reading).

This makes the social media campaign even more important and explains why both sides are putting a lot of time, effort and finance into these outlets. Hopefully they will learn from the 2015 election and what the Conservatives did whilst ignoring Labour's efforts.

The huge unknown is the refugee crisis. Cameron's response so far has drawn criticism, at its most bleak as 'morally unacceptable'. With any new refugee problem, Cameron will have to explain how his new arrangements with Europe will help deal with both the causes and consequences. If he is seen to have little real power then that will impact negatively on the outcome of the referendum.

Whilst all sides will say that they will be concentrating on the positives or staying in or leaving there is little doubt that Nigel Farage will talk about immigration. The danger for the pro campaign is that this is what motivates the large sections of the electorate who are unaware that there is a referendum planned, let alone a renegotiation taking place. Anti-politics is hard to ignore at the moment and this could remain a Farage secret weapon.

Without a serious boost to the pro campaign, the danger of sleepwalking remains high.