LONDON / AFP
Prime Minister David Cameron has cleared some key hurdles as he takes his first steps in what promises to be a bitter campaign ahead of an EU membership referendum in June, experts said.
Starting with a reform deal struck at a European Union summit on Friday, Cameron went on to secure the support of the overwhelming majority of his cabinet on Saturday.
“Cameron did well politically with the other member states” and “the best that he could” with eurosceptics within his own Conservative Party, John Springford, a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said.
Cameron says the deal in Brussels confers a “special status” on Britain, protecting its status as a non-eurozone member, excluding it from the aim of “ever closer union” and curbing welfare benefits for EU workers in Britain.
After the cabinet meeting on Saturday, only six ministers said they would campaign for “Leave” on the referendum question on June 23: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the EU?”
The decision of Justice Secretary Michael Gove, a close personal friend and ally of Cameron, to support “Leave” was a blow to the premier, but the endorsement of heavyweights like Home Secretary Theresa May, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was seen as crucial.
One key uncertainty, however, is which way the Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who is seen as a potential successor to Cameron, will go.
The gaffe-prone but popular eurosceptic politician could boost a “Leave” camp that so far lacks a national figurehead, aside from UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, who does not appeal to moderate voters.
‘Cameron’s standing’ is key
Whatever the arguments of the for and against camps, experts said it was unlikely the details of the EU deal would have much weight in a campaign that will hinge on larger issues about national prosperity and sovereignty.
“The deal won’t do that much to convince anybody,” Springford said, adding that aside from the most ardent EU supporters and opponents “those in the middle will vote on the big arguments about economy and security”.
AnandMenon, a European politics professor at King’s College London, also said it was “unbelievable” that anyone would decide their vote based on the substance of the EU deal.”Come June 23, no one is going to be talking about the specifics of the deal,” he said
As the campaign gets underway, Cameron will also be reassured by the backing of the City of London, Europe’s biggest financial hub, and the main centre-left opposition Labour Party.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has dismissed Cameron’s EU negotiations as a “sideshow” but has said he will campaign for Britain to stay in the EU to protect investments, jobs and worker and consumer protection rights.
Come June 23, The Economist weekly argued, voters’ decision will hinge largely on their views on Cameron, who does not want to go down in history as the prime minister who led Britain out of the EU.
“Nothing will matter as much as Mr Cameron’s standing,” it said, adding that his “personal appeal and abilities” would be key.
“If it currently looks like the ‘In’ campaign will prevail, that is because he remains relatively well-liked and respected (with the emphasis on relatively),” it said.