January 23, 2023 - 5:00pm

Did he have to do it? That is the question that has been repeatedly asked in the decade since David Cameron’s decision in January 2013 to pledge that, if the Conservative Party were to win a majority at the next election, the UK would hold an in-out referendum to settle, once and for all, the European question in British politics. 

In one corner is the politician Cameron beat to the leadership of the Tory Party, the Eurosceptic David Davis. When he stood up 10 years ago today in front of assorted city types at Bloomberg’s offices, Davis says that Cameron engaged in a fateful act of ‘political self-harm’. An ambiguous position, sounding Eurosceptic but never quite meaning it, was ‘a touchline he (Cameron) could have run for a very, very long time’. 

In the other corner, unsurprisingly, is Cameron himself — whose key defence in his memoirs is that if he had not called a referendum, at some point another Conservative leader, who would likely have made the case to leave, was bound to do so. 

One way of resolving this puzzle is through the counterfactual ‘what if’: what would have been the fate of the Conservative Party and the country (and, Cameron’s critics argue, his priorities were certainly ranked in that order) if he had simply ignored the siren calls to his Right and defiantly marched on to face the electorate without a big concession on Europe?

Something we can be sure of is that the pressure from within the Conservative Party for an in-out referendum would not have gone away. We know this because Cameron’s speech did not make a blind bit of difference to the size of the Tory rebellion on the European issue. In October 2011, 81 Conservatives defied a three-line whip to vote in favour of a referendum on EU membership. In May 2014, long after Cameron had promised a referendum, over 100 Tory MPs backed an amendment to the Queen’s Speech regretting the absence of a referendum. 

We also should have a sneaking suspicion that what political scientists might call ‘extra-parliamentary pressure’ for a referendum — or, as most people would label it, ‘Nigel Farage’ — was not about to disappear any time soon either. We know that because UKIP had not reached their peak, or anything like it, by January 2013.  We also now understand — having lived through his topping the polls again in the next European elections in June 2019 — Farage’s remarkable staying power and pull. 

The next question is whether the Conservative Party would have won the 2015 general election, or if that referendum pledge was the difference between a slim Conservative majority and Ed Miliband entering Number 10. The British Election Study found just 1.3% named an EU referendum as the most important issue they were thinking about when casting their vote in May 2015. While it may have made a marginal difference, the evidence suggests David Cameron would nonetheless have re-entered Downing Street with a renewed mandate.  

Until May 2015 this parallel history looks roughly the same as what really happened. We then have to ask, as he sat in Number 10 and looked forward to another five years in office without the burden of an in-out vote, what Cameron’s immediate fate would have been. Would he have been able to finally get close to meeting his promise to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands? The answer, as we live today in 2023 with the highest levels of net migration ever, is inevitably no. Would he have moved decisively away from the programme of austerity that had contributed to the wide sense of political disaffection? Without the shock of Brexit, the Conservative Party’s attachment to austerity would have remained absolute.

This means that, in our alternative reality where Cameron decided not to promise a referendum a decade ago today, the popular discontent with politics-as-usual would have simmered as the country grew ever more unequal and fed up with empty political promises. The lever marked ‘EU referendum’, meanwhile, would sit there growing ever more attractive and waiting to be pulled by his successor.  

What all this means is that Cameron was right, but not for the reasons he thinks: eventually, the effects of austerity and his failure to level with the public on immigration meant a reckoning on Europe was not a matter of if, but when.

Dr Alan Wager is a political scientist based at Queen Mary University of London and the Mile End Institute.

Dr Alan Wager is a political scientist based at Queen Mary University of London and the Mile End Institute.