David Cameron may be an odious politician and the Labour leadership election suggests he is certainly a lucky one, but his EU referendum game may turn out well for him. Whether he saw this from the start I don’t know, but maybe he did. In which case well played David, you lying slimeball.
An in/out EU referendum might have been good for eurosceptics if UKIP had made a better showing at the general election. Even then it would have been risky because the EU has many advantages, not least the triple advantages of inertia, fear of the unknown and pots of money. As things stand now, a referendum isn’t so good for eurosceptics because there is too much to lose and losing is the most likely outcome.
Cameron knows this. Although there are risks in holding an in/out referendum, the gains make it worthwhile. A vote to stay in the EU may not get the issue off his back, but it will permanently weaken it and change the nature of the narrative. It will be marginalised politically and that must be his intention. It paves the way for his next career move too. I'm sure that is also his intention.
Allowing his ministers to campaign as they choose could be another smart move. There is little charisma available among ministers to damage the pro-EU narrative and allowing this amount of freedom claws back some democratic credentials. Not only that, but it may lob more leadership issues into the eurosceptic camp. If the vote goes Cameron's way then his victory becomes that much more personal and legitimate, the eurosceptic case that much less legitimate.
What persuaded Cameron to take the referendum risk in the first place? I don’t know but he could have been advised by Tony Blair - the game feels Machiavellian enough. Or he may simply be lucky. In responding to pressures he made it up as he went along and stumbled on a game worth playing. It still feels worthy of Machiavelli to me though.