Michael Caine's Brexit muddle signals danger for David Cameron

In his negotiations over Britain’s future in the EU, David Cameron is trying to give the impression he is on a roll that will allow him to bounce a hesitant and cautious electorate into voting yes to Europe as early as 23 June.

I hope he’s right. But did he catch Michael Caine’s interview on Radio 4’s Today programme the other day?

Caine’s performance was wonderful – it usually is on radio and TV because the Tory-voting actor doesn’t have newspapers mediating his views in order to highlight his chippy side. Left to speak for himself, Caine’s self-deprecating humour always shines through, as do his enjoyably chaotic political thoughts.

On this occasion he said he hadn’t made up his mind about the coming referendum and that a Brexit vote would be “scary”. After being a tax exile in the US, Caine came home when Maggie Thatcher cut income tax rates and now lives mostly in Surrey, though he has had tax grief about his former Spanish home. So he can vote – he’s not Sean Connery.

But it quickly became clear on Radio 4 that Caine has made up his mind. He said he didn’t like “being dictated to by thousands of faceless bureaucrats” (etc, etc) and “sort of feels certain” Britain should leave. If it proves a bad move, we’ll all have to work harder until we succeed like he always did, he explained.

But Caine’s muddle is Cameron’s danger. Too many voters may reach the same half-baked conclusion.

Today’s reports that Donald Tusk, the European council president, left his No 10 dinner early last night should come as no surprise. It’s increasingly clear that the PM thinks he can extract enough on his four key packages – perhaps by the end of this week – to face down an opposition that is angry, divided, and already sounding defeatist.

In today’s Guardian, Matthew D’Ancona sums up the hopes of the Tory high command as Dave suppresses his gut Euroscepticism, does a quick change and sells the deal. Clever metropolitan Tories and their pundit allies tend to talk that way. It’ll be all right on the night.

I’m not so sure. That’s what they told each other before the Scottish independence referendum, but it nearly wasn’t and isn’t fixed yet.

On the ConservativeHome website, the cerebral ex-MP, Paul Goodman, today sets out what Cameron originally promised to extract in his negotiations and the vestigial elements that are left. Not much, and the “emergency brake” mechanism for deterring EU migrants via a benefits cap, a device No 10 is busy talking up, looks pretty feeble, even to me.

So do the frontmen for both camps. Here’s the ex-M&S boss, Sir Stuart Rose, titular head of the pro-EU camp, making the case on Radio 4’s Today programme and sounding pretty feeble on tone and substance. And here’s Jon Moynihan of Vote Leave, one of the feuding no campaigns, being gently taken apart by Today’s Justin Webb.

The last time Labour’s Alan Johnson made a speech that I spotted, not a word got reported. When Liam Fox, scourge of our armed forces, urges former cabinet colleagues to use their judgment, it’s time to get into the lifeboats. Jeremy Corbyn now says he’ll back Europe, but do we trust Jez to resist mischief making, let alone be of much use? No one so far has shown persuasive leadership on either side.

The Times columnist and global-warming critic Matt Ridley (the George Monbiot of the right – clever and well informed, sceptical, all in the opposite direction), explains here (paywall) that the Leave.EU campaign, funded by the mouthy City money man Aaron Banks, with Nigel Farage on board, is the core no vote, anti-immigrant camp. The more mainstream Vote Leave, run by Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott, will probably be designated the official no voice and concentrate on assuring the wavering third of voters, the ones who will decide the outcome, that their jobs and their kids’ prospects will be safer. Caine is their kind of target voter.

Nay, the kids’ prospects will be enhanced as Britain, cut free from the EU ball and chain, becomes “the Japan of the west, only more open”, Ridley writes. An odd vision, given Japan’s 20 years of frantic deflation. But Ridley, the chairman of Northern Rock when it crashed, is an optimist. The risks of staying in and being pushed around by resentful (“you’re now in for good”) Eurocrats is far scarier, he says: “Two can play at Project Fear.”

This strikes me as wishful thinking.

Economic migrants and refugees from war will still head our way after a Brexit. Nor is Europe responsible for giving questionable millions to Kids Company or for the fact that family weekends at Center Parcs cost a lot more in Britain than on the wicked continent. Does Farage ever ask himself why?

Hard though it is for the self-absorbed Nigels to grasp, it’s also not all about us.

The refugee and migrant crisis grows by the day in all directions, with buckling Greece in danger of being cut off from Schengen membership in the south, Italy on the brink, and Muslim Algeria perhaps poised to implode too. There are left/right clashes in Sweden, which took in 200,000 migrants year, in Calais and now at Dover. Nice, liberal Denmark voted last week to relieve migrants of their valuables, as a deterrent not a practical policy. The Social Democrats voted for it too. Things are getting ugly.

So everyone is under pressure, not just David Cameron. Tusk is a modernising ex-prime minister of Poland, but had other things on his mind over No 10 grub apart from Dave’s party management. Five officials closely associated with his Civic Platform party, including his own chief of staff, are about to go on trial for “negligence” that led to the Smolensk plane crash that killed 96 people, including the then president Lech KaczyƄski, whose brother Jaroslav is the power behind Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party.

Who is convincingly making the most impressive running on corporate misconduct in 2016? For once it’s the EU. Beset by problems it fails to tackle, it has in its competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, Denmark’s former deputy PM, a cool technocrat with steady nerves and pragmatic judgment, nominated for the post by Helle Thorning-Schmidt, Denmark’s Mrs Borgen.

Apple, Gazprom, Google – Vestagar’s office is squaring up to them all over tax and monopolistic practices that threaten the fabric of all our societies. She seems to be doing a better job than the UK Treasury or HMRC, whose unilateral tax deal (“a major success” – G Osborne) with Google did not help.

As Caine would put it: “Not a lot of people know that.” But they should. And so should he. Cameron’s gamble is that waverers will vote for safety first. In the current frightened mood they just might not.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Monday 1st February 2016 14.40 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010