Mr. Cameron’s Moment of Truth

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David Cameron's moment of truth.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Most political observers predict David Cameron would be forced to step down as British prime minister if Brexit supporters prevail in the June 23 referendum.

  • Facts


    • Conservative leader David Cameron has served as prime minister of the United Kingdom for the past six years.
    • Mr. Cameron had promised to hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the E.U. if voters returned his Conservatives to power in last year’s elections.
    • Nine out of 10 economists agree that Britain would hurt its economy if its voters decide to break ties with the European Union.
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David Cameron stood firm as he addressed a packed TV studio – and the entire British nation – just days ahead of the country’s E.U. referendum.

During a special edition of the BBC program Question Time on Sunday, the U.K. prime minister appealed to voters to keep Britain in the European Union.

“I want to be a country that does want to work with others,” Mr. Cameron said. “What I’ve learned in six years is that there is no problem in the world that isn’t better addressed with your allies, your friends and your neighbors.”

On Thursday, June 23, the British people will decide whether they want to remain part of the E.U. family. For Mr. Cameron, the vote will determine not only the future of the country, but also the future of his career.

Whether the 49-year-old Conservative stays on at 10 Downing Street hinges on whether his Remain campaign prevails. Many observers, including members of his own party, see it as his most critical challenge yet.

“The prime minister wouldn’t last 30 seconds if he lost the referendum,” said former chancellor Kenneth Clarke, who served under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, in addition to Mr. Cameron.

As the countdown ahead of Thursday’s vote continues, Mr. Cameron has been bouncing from one TV studio to another as part of a media push meant to drum up support for the pro-Europe camp. He has also enlisted his predecessors – including Mr. Major and Gordon Brown – to take that same message to the British people.

“The prime minister wouldn’t last 30 seconds if he lost the referendum.”

Kenneth Clarke, Former chancellor

Even among his fellow Brexit opponents, however, are those who take issue with the prime minister’s doom-and-gloom strategy. His tendency to fall back on dire warnings of what might happen to Britain if it breaks with Brussels has earned his campaign the moniker “Project Fear.”

That has reinforced Mr. Cameron’s reputation as a tactician, not a political visionary. His Conservatives’ victory in the last elections followed his pledge to allow a vote on the E.U. issue. As more of a euroskeptic himself, the prime minister was slow to take a firm position early on in the Brexit debate.

Whereas Winston Churchill once spoke spiritedly of “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” the passion behind Mr. Cameron’s pleas regarding the upcoming referendum has been lacking at times. In one such pitch to voters, he admitted that the E.U. can be a frustrating institution but said most economists agree a Brexit would hurt the economy.

With his own Conservatives divided, Mr. Cameron has been engaging in a difficult balancing act – reflecting the problems he’s had in trying to win over the euroskeptic wing of his party ahead of Thursday’s vote. By Friday, at the latest, the U.K. and the world will find out whether he’s succeeded.

For the prime minister and his Conservatives, however, the day after the referendum is only the beginning of another uphill battle – to mend fences within the party.

Carsten Herz is Handelsblatt’s London correspondent. To contact the author:

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