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In 2013 in a speech in London entitled “Britain and Europe” David Cameron committed to an in/out referendum for the European Union for their 2015 manifesto.

“The next Conservative Manifesto in 2015 will ask for a mandate from the British people for a Conservative government to negotiate a new settlement with our European Partners in the next Parliament. It will be a relationship with the Single Market at its heart. At when we have negotiated that new settlement we will give the British people a referendum with a very simple in or out choice.”

I think this was the “announcement” of the referendum intention.

Clearly he and his advisors believed that they would easily win otherwise surely he wouldn’t have offered it.

But why did he even offer it? This speech was well before UKIP handily won the European Elections of 2014. Was euroscepticism seen to be a real threat to the Conservative Party at the time?

Or was it offered simply to put an annoyance to bed forever?

Or was this a response to the coalition government and a play to ensure they won sufficient votes in 2015 to govern alone?

  • 1
    The ultra nationalist tendencies of the Tories have always been there. They don't like French technocrats running things. They think the ruling class of England should run everything. They aren't bothered if the economy is utterly destroyed. Cameron was prepared to take the risk of losing the referendum because it's was just a game to him – Vorsprung May 24 at 13:50
  • But only ~130 of the Tories voted to Leave, with many of these being very soft Leavers. Did this minority pose enough of a strategic threat to the party enough to offer the referendum? – Ben May 24 at 13:54
  • You are referring to the recent rounds of votes? That's a different situation to before the referendum. The recent rounds of votes could have actually kicked the UK out of the EU and the cosy trade arrangements. Anyone that did this would be blamed. Some commentaries were saying things like "make the Tories unelectable for a generation". Back in 2016 it was a very different game. The bizarre fantasies of the leave campaign didn't come from zero - Tories believed a lot of the contradictory things they said – Vorsprung May 24 at 14:03
  • Obligatory Yes, Minister sketch: youtube.com/watch?v=37iHSwA1SwE – Denis de Bernardy May 25 at 21:16
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There's a bit more background to this. Some of it is easily verifiable from other sources, but some is the view of Ivan Rogers who was the British Permanent Representative to the EU (2013-2017) and was previously Adviser for Europe and Global Issues to Cameron himself (2012-2013). Briefly:

  • Cameron had previously promised a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, had it not been ratified before he took power. Cameron personally thought that the Lisbon Treaty was a bad deal for the UK.

  • During the Eurozone crisis, Cameron felt betrayed (or at least seriously ignored) by Berlin and Paris when his conditions (of increased UK influence in EU financial matters) for agreeing to a reform of the eurozone were bypassed by the latter through a 17-country Fiscal Stability Treaty (Dec 2011 - Jan 2012).

  • In October 2012, Cameron suffered a key defeat in Commons on the negotiation stance for the EU budget, with a large number of Tories defecting (and some of them would later join UKIP).

So basically both internal and external factors caused Cameron to harden his stance on the EU. Externally, he seems to have intended to use the referendum threat as bargaining chip with the EU, as he apparently informed them sometime before the speech that he still intended to pursue EU reforms and a full in-out referendum (the public details on these pre-speech talks with EU about the referendum are scant though). Internally, it's pretty clear that he thought to shore up his Eurosceptic credentials after the October defeat.

In Rogers' words:

Cameron himself promised, when Leader of the Opposition, that there would be such a referendum [on the Lisbon Treaty], if the Treaty had not already been ratified by all Member States before he took office. By the time he took office, it HAD been universally ratified, including here.

Plenty in his own party ignored the phrase “if it had not already been ratified” and wanted him to reopen the whole issue post ratification. He did not. Could not. But what he did do was to legislate domestically in the European Union Act of 2011 to put an effective lock on any further UK commitment to any further steps towards political integration.

He clearly hoped, via that Act, to calm the party’s post Lisbon Treaty frenzy, and thereby to persuade it to “stop banging on about Europe,” as he put it in first first Party Conference speech as Conservative leader.

His own view [at the time], often expressed to his close team, was that very few of the great domestic issues with which he wanted the Coalition government to grapple were much impacted by the EU, and that the public rarely viewed the EU question as amongst its central preoccupations. [...]

Yet that stance was, within 18 months of Cameron’s taking office, effectively in tatters. [The reason was] In a phrase: the eurozone crisis. [...]

in Westminster, the passage of legislation specifically and solely designed to cauterise eurozone wounds and address eurozone needs, inflamed Conservative opinion. The mood amongst many of the backbenchers was that the eurozone was the proverbial burning building with no exits, might be nearing collapse, needed our urgent assistance in preventing collapse, and needed Treaty changes in its own interests. So, no better time to name our price for Treaty changes of our own. Many were gunning for an in-out referendum right away. They were not talking much about free movement, borders or the European Court of Justice then. It was about divorce from the burning building.

[...] Cameron made clear that he was now no longer prepared to allow the 26 (as it then was) again to amend the Treaties to enable the changes now required by the eurozone members, unless, simultaneously, amendments were agreed to the Treaties which gave the UK satisfaction on the key anxieties he and George Osborne had about the relationship between the then 17 eurozone members and the then 10 non-members.

But the Cameron attempt to lever open the negotiation got nowhere. Berlin and Paris essentially went round him. A couple of days before the December European Council, Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, at a European People’s Party Heads meeting at Marseilles decided to circumvent a potential British blockade of the amendment of the Treaties by doing the deal at 17 via a partly intergovernmental Treaty process, which would not require UK ratification. The resulting Fiscal Compact is now known as the Fiscal Stability Treaty. [...]

To others, notably Berlin and Paris, the UK’s proposed Protocol looked like the UK opportunistically exploiting an existential crisis of the eurozone merely to further long standing British interests. The resentment was deep, and the mood sour.

To Cameron, though, the eurozone members’ manoeuvre was the eurozone privileging its own urgent institutional reforms over his.

[...]

I do not know precisely when David Cameron decided when he would offer the public an in or out referendum. We were discussing it with him well into the summer of 2012, around G8, G20 and EU Banking Union summits, but it was gestating before that.

He personally deeply disliked the Lisbon Treaty settlement, and its institutional implications. [...] His first attempt to address those issues head on [during the Eurozone crisis] had not cracked it.

And he now knew that he would never get agreement to a de facto British veto on [EU institutional] developments, by returning issues from qualified majority to unanimity voting. He also knew that others had found a way to deliver the requisite short medium term changes to the eurozone without opening up the Treaties for what he thought the UK needed.

[...] For all that this held little interest for the public and the vast bulk of the media, in Cameron’s view this had become the central issue of our membership which later led him to the proposal, made in his Bloomberg speech a year later in January 2013, to attempt to renegotiate UK membership terms, to be followed by an in-out referendum. My contention here is that his thinking about the key permanent changes he needed, was set far earlier than other commentators have suggested, and was determined above all by his experiences in December 2011 [the rejection of his demands during the Eurozone crisis].

Cameron suffered a stinging defeat on the floor of the House in late October 2012, when his proposed stance for the impending EU Budget negotiations—which was to advocate a real terms freeze, far below the proposal on the EU leaders’ table—was rejected by a combination of the Labour opposition led by Ed Miliband, and 53 Tory rebels, marshalled by, amongst others, players who defected to Ukip within 18 months.

[...] By the time the Bloomberg speech was finally delivered in January 2013, the main contents had been well trailed with other EU leaders, and they knew that the key commitment to an in-out referendum was the central component. They also knew that Cameron would seek what he termed a “new settlement” before putting the issue to the people.

[...] Others calculated, in classic European fashion, that no leader would do what Cameron duly did: go down in flames in a [referenudum] vote rather than acquiesce and find a price. His calculation, on the contrary was that to do anything else would send precisely the wrong signal for the renegotiation ahead.

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Anti-EU feelings have been a growing force in the Conservative Party for over two decades, causing John Major significant difficulties during his period as Prime Minister from 1990-97. In 2013, UKIP had not had any electoral breakthroughs, but was attracting support from traditionally Conservative-supporting newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express. There were also rumblings from the most anti-EU Conservative MPs that UKIP seemed more in line with their view of the world.

David Cameron thought all of this would be crushed by a "remain" result in the referendum, and completely failed to realise how much of his own party was strongly motivated to leave.

  • So euroscepticism was seen as a strategic threat to the party even before the 2014 euro elections? In 2013 UKIP was nowhere. So was it seen at that time as an annoyance that could be stamped out? – Ben May 24 at 13:58
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    @Ben as John says in his answer it wasn't about UKIP in particular, but about the ideological split within the Conservative party itself. One of the Conservative Parties main strengths is its ability to hold together the whole right of politics, (as opposed to Labour/LibDem/Green/SNP/Plaid on the fragmented left) splitting along pro/anti eu lines would electorally be a disaster, but the differences of the Pro/anti eu factions have been building since the 90s. The Anti EU right was seen as minor, but growing by the leadership, much like the hard left in labour circa 2015. – Jontia May 24 at 14:33
  • But surely there was no real chance of a split in the party was there? Did Cameron view this coalition as a period of sunshine to “tidy-up” the party and kill of the pesky eurosceptics? – Ben May 24 at 15:47
  • @Ben - A 'remain' vote would have been largely accepted by the majority of Conservative-leaning voters, at least until the swell of opinion arose again in maybe 10-20 years time. – Valorum May 25 at 18:38
  • This answer references “anti-europeanism”. Please don’t confuse anti-Europe with anti-EU. The preferred word is “Euroscepticism”, which is explicitly understood to refer to the EU and political integration (and not to European culture etc). – Chris Melville May 25 at 20:20
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There are two primary reasons. The argument expressed in other answers that it was to satisfy a faction of the Conservative party, and that he expected an easy victory for remain, is one of these.That is absolutely the reason a commitment to an EU referendum was included in the 2015 manifesto. It should also be noted, however, that David Cameron wasn't expecting to have to stick to his manifesto promises. At the time, it seemed highly unlikely that the Conservative party would gain a parliamentary majority, and so he would have had the chance to drop the referendum commitment in negotiations with other parties.

When the Tories won a decisive majority, he had no practical choice but to stick to the promise and hold the referendum which had been promised.

  • Does this imply that Cameron was not offering the referendum to win the election, but as a strategic measure to appease Tory MPs and defer the argument past his premiership when it was kicked into the long grass in the coalition? – Ben May 24 at 15:36
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    @Ben obviously we can't know exactly why he did it but my read of the situation is that it was a combination of the two - he thought it was a vote winner but that it still wouldn't push them over into a majority. Part of the motivation was definitely about ensuring the party stayed together and united – CoedRhyfelwr May 24 at 17:05
  • Thanks. But was there really perceived to be a risk of it splitting? – Ben May 24 at 17:32
  • @Ben it wasn't seen as likely but it had been a division in the party for a long time, and was only getting worse. David Cameron thought he could be a uniting figure and make sure anyone thinking of defecting to UKIP didn't. – CoedRhyfelwr May 24 at 17:48

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