Check out the numbers is always good advice for those trying to read the political runes. And for those like me, who want to kiss good bye to the European Union, the numbers don’t look good.
The opinion polls (yes, I know they are not infallible) have moved decisively against Brexit over the past 12 months, giving the Yes side a double digit lead. In May 2014, according to the Ipsos MORI tracker, public opinion was evenly split over the merits of staying or going. By June this year, the Yes side had a 30-point lead. Other polls have recorded a much narrower gap, but for all that the status quo looks well ahead. Bookmakers make Yes an odds on favourite to win the In/Out referendum expected in the autumn of next year.
And so far not a single Cabinet minister has indicated that he or she intends to back the No to the EU campaign.
Last weekend, The Sunday Times sought to breathe life into the contest, reporting that eight Cabinet ministers were in talks with the embryonic No campaign, though details were sketchy. Only two were named – Welfare Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Commons Leader Chris Grayling – and only in the sense that they are regarded by Eurosceptics as the two most likely to walk away from the trappings of office and join the rebellion against EU membership.
There is the rub. With the No campaign, such as it is, trailing in the polls and the bookies making the Yes side the favourites, is it likely that ambitious politicians will want to jeopardise their careers by joining what looks like a sinking ship?
Mr Cameron is certainly giving dissident Conservative ministers no encouragement. He has made clear that he expects all his ministers (Cabinet and junior) to support the outcome of his renegotiation of our terms of membership on pain of dismissal if they refuse. And he has certainly made clear that he expects that renegotiation to end with a recommendation that he has secured sufficient improvements in our terms of membership for the UK to remain in the European club.
Nor have Tory MPs been rushing to the No banner. More than 100 (out of about 330) have reportedly expressed an interest in Conservatives for Britain, part of the embryonic No campaign, but no one seems to have broken cover and declared clearly for exit.
The Tory Party seems to be waiting for Godot. Waiting for some blinding flash of light from the PM. They should remember that Godot never comes. And that Cameron is far too canny a politician ever to give them the excuse to rise up against him and condemn his “renegotiation”. You can also bet your bottom dollar that, with the secret connivance of Merkel and Hollande, Dave will be able to whip a rabbit or two out of the hat when the time comes. Cue applause from the Mail, Telegraph, and Times, and the game is up.
What of the other parties? With Jeremy Corbyn set to be elected Labour leader in September, there is a faint possibility that his party could abandon its long-standing slavish devotion to Brussels. Comrade Corbyn hails from the hard-left wing of the Labour party, a minority sect historically opposed to the EU. Ever since Jacques Delors, the former EU Commission president, persuaded the British Labour movement in the late 1980s that Europe was a socialist rather than a capitalist club, Labour MPs and supporters have unthinkingly backed EU membership.
Corbyn’s instincts may be anti-Brussels but, given the mayhem that will ensue in Labour ranks when he is elected leader by his juvenile fan club of social media junkies, it is hard to see him taking a grip on the debate. He will have far too many hot potatoes on his plate to fret too much about Europe.
All the other political parties, bar Ukip, are on Cameron’s side. It looks a walkover, much like the 2:1 majority secured in the 1975 vote when the whole political establishment, reflecting their profound defeatism about Britain’s capacity for going it alone, opted to trade national independence for the promise of greater prosperity. With Europe now an economic basket case, except for Germany, it does not look like such a great bargain today.
Mention of Ukip brings us to Nigel Farage, who next month will begin a national speaking campaign designed to whip up support for the No side. Equally, the putative No campaign, centred on Business for Britain, plans a launch next month of its efforts to persuade the British people that they don’t need to subcontract their government to foreign powers.
Farage, who has already lambasted his potential Tory allies for their timidity, moaning and bitching, intends a typically rumbustious campaign, centred on regaining national independence and reasserting UK control over immigration – the issue that threatens to tear the EU apart and is now number one on the public’s list of concerns. But Ukip is polling 9 per cent, compared with the Tories 42 per cent and Labour’s shrunken post-election 28 per cent. Without the enthusiastic endorsement of Tory heavyweights and a significant input from Labour politicians, it seems unlikely that Farage can carry the day. Boris Johnson, much given to Eurosceptic burblings, continues to sulk in his tent. Dan Hannan, the most eloquent and cerebral of the Tory Party’s EU critics, is also strangely detached from the fray.
Other groups, notably the one run by multi-millionaire businessman Aaron Banks, also intend to pitch in on the No side, although the Business for Britain outfit looks like winning endorsement as the official No campaign. Its focus, predominantly on the economic and business case for Brexit, risks failing to engage the imagination of the public.
Forty years ago, the last time Britain’s European destiny was last decided, the political establishment crushed dissent. Today, with only the lonely if heroic Mr Farage prepared to take to the battlefield, the result looks like being the same.