The marathon ahead – The UK-EU Referendum

On the 24th June 2016, the British Athletics Championships & Olympic Trials are set to take place in Birmingham. Whilst Mo Farah and others begin lacing up for the races ahead, the dust will be starting to settle on the marathon run by UK politicians of all allegiances during the UK’s European referendum campaign, with the expected date for the referendum vote being the day before, on the 23rd.

It’s been difficult to disassociate spin from substance this week. Parties on both sides of the European debate have clamoured to shape the rhetoric surrounding the results of the negotiations between David Cameron and Donald Tusk to their own agendas. Amidst the smoke and mirrors, one thing at least is clear, the Prime Minister has the challenge of his political life ahead of him. The European Referendum represents the biggest political event of a generation, and Cameron knows his legacy as leader will be defined by its result.

The starting pistol is loaded, and the race is almost afoot. However, the route ahead remains unclear, not least because we cannot yet be certain of the finish line. The Prime Minister now faces two sizeable challenges, one – defining the finish, and the other, agreeing the start.

From a diplomacy perspective, Cameron must now negotiate with guile and perseverance in order to convince the EU member states that this renegotiation package works for them as well as he believes it will for Britain. With the EU heads of government summit due to take place over the 18th-19th of February, the Prime Minister must sell his vision of a UK-European relationship to an audience that isn’t without scepticism. With the consent of all 28 member states required to ratify this settlement, the pressure of recent weeks will only ratchet up in those to come. Failure will mean an unwelcome delayed start.

If Cameron is to be successful in his diplomacy, he must work systematically and not become overly divided across multiple political fronts. An approach far easier for commentators to recommend than for him to implement, particularly considering the domestic pressure he now faces regarding his preferred date for the referendum. With the SNP loudly beating the drum for a developing coalition of Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh politicians suggesting a June referendum would come too soon after elections in their respective countries, domestic consensus may prove as elusive and difficult to achieve as it could on the continent.

Marathon races are run in stages. They are won by athletes able to compartmentalise, to endure and crucially, to finish well.

If the Prime Minister is to be successful, he must now do the same. This means compartmentalising his diplomatic duties abroad before establishing sufficient political will at home to start the race on his terms. It means enduring through the long and hard race ahead, and crucially, saving just enough energy following it all to sprint to the finish line ahead of the competing pack.