EU referendum: Who's talking about that Cameron deal on Europe?

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Media captionPM David Cameron: "There is no saving to leaving the EU. There is a cost"

Quickly now. Without looking it up. Can you list the proclaimed gains secured by David Cameron in his negotiations with the EU before this remarkable referendum campaign began?

Yes, thought you might say that. As foreshadowed here, the renegotiation of Britain's terms of membership has played a minimal role in the banter and barracking between the two sides.

Why so? Because, for the good and sensible people of England in particular, this referendum is about much more than individual EU directives, treaty or protocols.

It is about their standing in the world. It is about their relations with their nearest neighbours. It is about their identity. It is, therefore, for many, about immigration.

Some represent the referendum as a civil war within the Conservative Party. Certainly, the internal vitriol has been notable. But that conflict merely draws upon a wider sense of anxiety in England. That sense - that same sense - brought UKIP into being and caused the Prime Minister to fret.

So, as noted here earlier, this referendum is now focused upon competing concerns. The Remain side talk up the economic threat of Brexit, identified by umpteen commentators and companies. That is fear of want.

The Leave side talk up immigration: if you like, stranger danger. In the context of these two competing narratives, the deal secured by David Cameron fails to engage.

OK, you've now had time to look up the details.

For ease, the changes included;

  • an emergency brake on welfare payments to migrants
  • a statement that the UK is not committed to ever closer Union
  • sundry pledges on red tape (against, that is, not in favour)
  • efforts to protect non-Euro countries from Eurozone decisions
  • and further endeavours to deter terror suspects from crossing borders.

The scope of each gain is, of course, disputed.

It was never likely that the detail of the deal would dominate the campaign. From the outset, it was largely a device designed by Downing Street to demonstrate that the PM was in charge, that he was striking an entirely new EU bargain, not simply giving way to UKIP or internal Tory pressure.

But it is remarkable how little salience it has had. Partly, that is because Mr Cameron did not secure everything he wanted: how could he? Partly, it is because of the more fundamental nature of the debate, as outlined earlier.

Today, on the wireless and the telly, I am spotlighting another basic element of the argument: that of defence and security.

I will examine competing claims: that the UK's safety is enhanced by EU co-operation versus the argument that the UK could provide more effective security with sole control. In each case, the UK would continue in Nato membership.

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Back to the campaign.

Right now, for understandable reasons, the Prime Minister seems notably anxious. Diffident, almost.

For example, on the Marr programme at the weekend, he set out to suggest that pensions might have to be cut in the event of Brexit.

His argument, in essence, was that core public spending programmes would have to be revised in the event that the economy slumped, post departure, which Mr Cameron forecasts.

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Media captionBBC Scotland's political editor Brian Taylor examines the role of defence and security in the EU referendum campaign

It was an understandable, if decidedly arguable, tactic: given that pensioners tend to vote and appear willing to vote Leave in fairly substantial numbers.

But the PM appeared to pull his punch a little. Instead of an apocalyptic warning, it sounded somewhat like a throwaway line within a wider argument.

His opponents have shown no such restraint. As noted with regard to TV debates, if they have a point to make, they hammer it home. They say what they are going to say, they say it, then they sum up what they have just said. Generally accompanied by a catchphrase, tested in focus groups.

Why this approach from the Prime Minister? Some say he is not personally enthused by the EU.

Image caption David Cameron warned about a Brexit result and subsequent fall in pensions

Certainly, I do not think it engenders passion in his core - by contrast with defence of that other Union, the UK. But I simply do not believe he is lukewarm about the cause.

Rather, I would draw attention to two factors......

  1. He may believe that voters are fed up with vainglorious rhetoric.
  2. I suspect he may be affected by the sheer, daunting scope of the decision ahead. A choice which he has prompted.

It was said of David Cameron around the time of the Scottish referendum in 2014 that he had no intention of being the George the Third of contemporary politics. (Take a line from the USA and 1776.)

He now faces the prospect that the vote on Thursday, 23 June - in a referendum he called - will lead to Britain leaving the European Union after more than 40 years. And, incidentally, may also lead to David Cameron leaving Downing Street.

Small wonder, perhaps, that the PM is preoccupied. Leave plainly believe that the momentum is with them. The disparate elements that constitute Remain have two options. Either co-operate more closely - or target messages at their own client bases (party identifiers, trades unions, business and the like.)

Given the fractures in politics and society, the latter tactic seems more likely. Whether it succeeds is, of course, entirely in the hands of the voters.