It was a simple but highly effective tactic.
Why try and engage the public in a complex argument about the merits of the alternative vote system when you could just turn the referendum on changing the way MPs are elected into a national opinion poll on an unpopular figure?
That was the tactic AV opponents, led by David Cameron, pursued back in 2011. Essentially they asked voters this question: “You used to trust Nick Clegg, he let you down over tuition fees, so why would you trust him over something as important as how we vote?”
It worked. The ‘no’ campaign romped home with a two-to-one margin of victory. And Cameron and colleagues patted themselves on the back. A job well done.
Now the tables have turned.
The Vote Leave campaign’s response to the Government’s announcement this week that £9.3m of taxpayers’ money will be spent issuing a leaflet to every household on the merits of EU membership was revealing.
The campaign’s spokesman accused Downing Street of “trying to distract the media’s attention from the issue of whether the Prime Minister’s family money is kept in offshore trusts”. Vote Leave was playing the man, rather than the ball.
There is now a real danger for Mr Cameron that the EU referendum becomes a replay of 2011 but with him now on the receiving end of the question: “You thought David Cameron was a decent bloke but he’s part of a wealthy elite and there’s questions over his tax affairs, so do you trust him over EU membership?”
Of course, this would matter much less if Labour was mounting a full-throated campaign in support of a ‘remain’ vote. But stung by its experiences in the Scottish independence referendum, Labour is reluctant to be seen standing shoulder to shoulder with the Conservatives and is led by a man with a history of euroscepticism.
Former leader Ed Miliband and firm ‘remain’ supporter recently warned of the danger of the EU referendum becoming a vote on David Cameron and, as a result, Labour supporters sitting on their hands. This week’s events have only increased that danger.
Early evidence was offered by pro-European Labour frontbencher Chris Bryant on Question Time last night as he tangled himself in knots trying to express support for the Prime Minister’s decision on the leaflet without supporting Mr Cameron himself.
In a matter of weeks, voters will go to the polls to make the biggest decision the country has faced in a generation. The task for the ‘remain’ campaign is to make sure they are answering the question on the ballot paper and not giving their verdict on Mr Cameron.