ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Thursday's referendum in the U.K. about staying in or pulling out of the European Union looks like it will be close, according to the polls, and it's emerging as a crucial test for Prime Minister Cameron. Cameron called for the referendum hoping that it would silence Eurosceptics within his own conservative party. But as NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, that strategy appears in danger of backfiring, and Cameron's political future is on the line.
PETER KENYON, BYLINE: David Cameron was politely applauded as he came before a BBC audience Sunday night, but citizen's questions soon turned hostile. Cameron was accused of scaremongering on national security issues and of misleading the public on immigration.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Why in your manifesto did you say you would bring down the number of EU immigrants down to the thousands when you knew very well you couldn't control these numbers?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What I don't understand is, with all these experts that you've got saying we should stay in, why the British public isn't more convinced? Why is Brexit in the lead?
KENYON: Finally, when an angry questioner compared him to Neville Chamberlain, the World War II-era Prime Minister who negotiated with Adolf Hitler, Cameron gave his most heated reply and sounded a lot like a leader fighting for his political life.
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DAVID CAMERON: At my office, I sit 2 yards away from the cabinet room where Winston Churchill decided in May 1940 to fight on against Hitler, the best and greatest decision perhaps anyone has ever made in our country, right? He didn't quit on Europe. He didn't quit on European democracy. He didn't quit on European freedom. We want to fight for those things today. And you can't win. You can't fight if you're not in the room.
KENYON: How did this savvy, conservative party politician who shocked the pollsters just a year ago by winning a solid majority in parliament find himself in such straits? Ironically, it was in part because he thought holding this referendum would put the lingering debate over Europe to rest.
Steve Coulter, who teaches political economy at the London School of Economics, says the key to Cameron's strategy was to negotiate more autonomy for the U.K. from Brussels, which would allow him to convince voters that staying in the EU was the best option.
STEVE COULTER: He came back with a very, very limited and thin set of concessions which did not please many people. I mean, Cameron probably thought he could buy some sort of deal and the referendum would be a formality. It has not worked out that way, and he's got a huge battle on his hands.
KENYON: In some ways, David Cameron is a classic example of a privileged Tory politician. He's from a wealthy family with ties to King William IV. And was educated at the elite schools Eton and Oxford. But he came to power with a mission to shake the party free from the demands of its right flank, the anti-Europe, anti-immigrant wing that has objected to British membership in the EU ever since it joined.
Unfortunately for Cameron, says political scientist Philip Cowley at Queen Mary's College, he misjudged the depth of the split in his own party and the worries about immigration among voters. Cowley, reached by Skype, also says Cameron failed to realize how fed up some voters are with listening to expert advice from their political and economic leaders.
PHILIP COWLEY: And so when you've got people like the governor of the Bank of England coming on and saying this will be damaging to the economy if we leave the EU, that advice is being swept away in a sort of anti-establishment wave of protest.
KENYON: It's reached the point now where people are wondering how long Cameron might stay on as prime minister even if he wins the vote on Thursday. And if it's a vote to pull out of the EU, professor Steve Coulter says Cameron will be under huge pressure from within his party to step down.
COULTER: Many of the leading Brexit people have said they've had enough of the way the campaign has been waged. They will blame Cameron for leading Britain through all this sort of muck. So I think the conservative party in this present mood will probably mount some sort of coup, and his chances of surviving it I think will be fairly small.
KENYON: Cameron and his supporters say he has no intention of stepping down, and he has surprised his critics before. But the EU referendum is likely to have a lasting, perhaps defining impact on the prime minister's career and his legacy. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.