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Today, the European Union (EU) referendum bill has its second reading in the House of Commons and the moment of decision draws a little closer. At this stage, it is an argument about the rules of the game. Should 16 and 17-year-olds be allowed to vote? (Yes.) Should the ballot be held on the same day as routine elections? Yet, the great battle, for now, is locked in a Mexican standoff, the prospective gunslingers twitching beneath their sand-blown ponchos to the music of Sergio Leone, waiting for the other side to make the first move.

Charlie Kennedy, who planned to play a prominent role in the campaign to stay in the EU, would have chuckled at the posturing and posing. To wit: The choreography of “renegotiation” requires British Prime Minister David Cameron to be prepared — at least in principle — to recommend exit from the EU. He would only do so if his shuttle diplomacy, charm offensive and arm-twisting had been such a disastrously abject failure and geopolitical humiliation that to recommend continued membership would make him look a globo-sap.

As you can imagine, the chances of the prime minister making such an admission are vanishingly small. But it is necessary that his EU counterparts believe him, at least a bit, when he threatens — so to speak — to shoot the puppy. Likewise, the new group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, “Conservatives for Britain” (CfB), must for now appear cheerfully open-minded about Cameron’s campaign. Owen Paterson, a member of the coalition cabinet between 2010 and 2014, told the Telegraph: “We all hope that the deal is satisfactory.”

Now, as Ebenezer Blackadder tells Scratchit, I suspect that to be a lie of sorts. But perhaps it is kinder to Paterson and his friends in the CfB group to say that their definition of “satisfactory” may be somewhat different to the prime minister’s, and that the former environment secretary’s remark is therefore technically accurate.

Cameron has always known that there was a significant number of his backbenchers who would reject his renegotiation unless he contrived to replace the entire Brussels bureaucracy with a single iPad. Westminster, of course, is bad at waiting and, when it does not know, speculates. So there is much chatter about Rupert Murdoch’s position on Britain’s membership of the EU, whether it has changed and what the media tycoon himself described in a tweet as a “weird misunderstanding” of his convictions.

Tory MPs sizing up Cameron’s prospective successors believe that George Osborne, though not at odds with the prime minister, is adopting a more robust approach to the negotiations. As it happens, Nigel Lawson, one of Osborne’s mentors, broke cover last week to claim that what Cameron could secure would probably be “inconsequential”. Downing Street insists that Cameron will only settle for substantial change, requiring treaty amendment of Britain’s membership. He seeks guaranteed immunity from the objective of “ever closer union”, three words that resemble a fragment of a slogan but currently have legal force in the courts that the UK seeks to escape.

Particular emphasis is being given to welfare and the time that must elapse before EU migrants are entitled to social benefits (Cameron wants a four-year moratorium). Poland is resisting this demand with especial ferocity. It will fall to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the prime minister’s closest ally on the global stage, to broker a deal — if one is available. Proto-campaigns abound, though the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 requires the Electoral Commission to designate only one on each side as the lead organisation, entitled to a substantial public subsidy. Among the groups championing continued membership, there is a general expectation that Business for New Europe, the organisation chaired by the businessman Roland Rudd, will seamlessly morph into the official campaign.

On the “out” side, there is much activity but less clarity. David Davis is planning a national tour to explain to local audiences that they have nothing to fear from Brexit. Over the weekend, Nigel Farage declared that United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) was “going to take the lead, we are going to get cracking” — an intervention that will secure the anti-EU hardcore and deter everyone else. If the “out” camp is to stand a chance, it must radiate modernity and global confidence, not the reactionary animus that animates Ukip. Yet, the “in” camp also needs to exercise care. In 1975, it was enough to gather the pro-membership mainstream of the political class — from Roy Jenkins to Margaret Thatcher via Denis Healey — and contrast them with the maverick “no” alliance of Enoch Powell and Michael Foot.

A similar logic applied in 1999 when Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and — of course — Kennedy launched the pressure group Britain in Europe (BIE). Yet so much has changed since then. Ten years after the BIE launch, the parliamentary expenses scandal conspired with memory of sleaze and hatred of spin to shatter what was left of trust in the political class. It will take years, maybe decades, to restore that confidence.

Today, the worst conceivable way of persuading the electorate of an argument would be to gather the most senior members of the main political parties on a platform so they could all agree with one another. Before you could say “Illuminati”, the punters would be running to the polling booths to vote “out”. The best hope that the “in” camp has is less inspiring than grindingly effective. It was the force that mobilised voters to reject electoral reform four years ago — in only the second nationwide referendum ever held. AV Dicey (1835-1922), the great jurist and theorist of referendums, understood that such votes were essentially conservative devices, and a means of thwarting the political class when it takes leave of its senses.

“The referendum is the people’s veto,” Dicey wrote. “[T]he nation is sovereign and may well decree that the constitution shall not be changed without the direct sanction of the nation.”

Look at the record of referendums since 2010. Electoral reform at Westminster: Rejected. Scottish independence: Rejected. Mayoral ties in the largest English cities: Two approved, nine rejected. The worst possible strategy to prevent Brexit is to send forth lots of men in suits with PowerPoints, spouting statistics. Almost as bad would be long speeches about “social Europe” and “our common European destiny”.

The British do not have much fondness for the EU, but they have even less for isolation — or the epic upheaval that Brexit would undoubtedly entail. This is not, I know, the glad confident morning that EU enthusiasts crave. But so what? The heart of practical politics is not minding why you win.

— Guardian News & Media Ltd