It is intensely personal now – partly because the winner of the referendum will inherit the keys to No 10, but more immediately and pertinently, because the result will turn on which of the key personalities succeeds in persuading floating voters of the merits of their case.
It is called the trust thing. Who do you trust to tell the truth about the EU? Is it the Prime Minister and his legions of intergalactic number crunchers, warning that the sky will fall in on June 24 if Britain votes to leave the EU. Or is it Boris Johnson and his merry Brexiteers, pointing to the sunlit uplands of a country freed from foreign rule?
The omens don’t look good for Dave. A string of polls over the last few weeks suggests that he is less trusted to tell the truth about the EU than Boris, Nigel Farage and Iain Duncan Smith. Strangely, Jeremy Corbyn scores relatively well (better than Farage and IDS) but since no one appears to know where he stands (privately for Out but publicly for In) it doesn’t much matter. Cameron, whether by design or not, has made himself the centre-piece of the Remain campaign, in the process eclipsing other potential leaders such as George Osborne, Theresa May and Alan Johnson. So it has come down to a pretty simple test: if you are undecided about Britain’s European future, will you put your faith in the PM or in Boris and, to a lesser but significant extent, his phalanx of senior allies, notably Farage, Michael Gove and IDS?
Cameron looks dangerously exposed. Because he so dominates the Remain campaign, he cannot readily summon up credible supporting voices. Perhaps that is why he seemed rattled and defensive in the first of the TV non-debate debates last week. He knows he is pretty much in his own and that if he muffs the final fortnight of the campaign, he is going down to a career-ending defeat.
Johnson, Farage and Co have been quick to spot their opportunity – warning the PM that his increasingly outlandish claims about the horrors of Brexit (World War III, recession, collapse in house prices, higher mortgage rates, an outbreak of leprosy (no, scrap that)) are corroding trust in politics, a message reinforced in a five-page open letter to the PM at the weekend in which Boris and Gove warned him that his duplicity over future Eurozone bailouts means that the public will not trust government promises in future. Priti Patel, the employment minister, also weighed in, accusing Remain of peddling fear, lies and “dodgy dossiers”.
Farage highlighted the sheer implausibility of Cameron’s manifesto pledge (now downgraded to an “ambition”) to get immigration down to tens of thousands while remaining in the EU. He complained of “Dishonest Dave” whose integrity is now being called sharply into question and told supporters at a Grassroots Out rally in Bristol on Saturday that he didn’t believe a word the PM said any more – which sounds familiar because Gordon Brown once said exactly the same of Tony Blair.
For the Brexit campaign, Cameron’s credibility is now the central issue. Central because Cameron’s is so integral to Remain’s hopes of victory and central because if he implodes, his chosen strategy – Project Fear – implodes with him, meaning Leave stands a real chance of victory.
The feeling on the ground and at Westminster is that Leave is closing the gap. Project Fear has unleashed most of its ammunition without obliterating its enemies; immigration, Leave’s strongest suit, is heavily in play; and Cameron is wobbling. His promises, especially about immigration, are transparently false yet he cannot now repudiate them. Faced with a studio audience insistent that he cannot control immigration numbers inside the EU, he looks like Dodgy Dave, ducking and diving his way out of trouble. In the process, he undermines the wider credibility of his case.
Cameron can expect far more pressure of this kind – a chorus of complaints that he is not playing straight with the electorate, first conjuring up totally over-blown terrors if we have the temerity to quit (a flat contradiction of his position a few months back) and then brazenly insisting black is white.
The race is tight, very tight, and Cameron has no answer to one of the critical issues – that inside the EU Britain can kiss goodbye to any prospect of controlling immigration levels already running at an unsustainable 330,000 net per year (and rising). If he persists in maintaining the fiction that he can, he risks blowing the credibility of the whole of the Remain campaign.