It’s 1 June and by rights the UK should have been preparing to launch its Presidency of the European Union. Instead of leaving the EU, the UK could have been running the EU. So what if David Cameron had delayed his EU referendum till after the UK’s Presidency?

What if the EU referendum had not taken place on 23 June last year? What if David Cameron had waited? Writing in the Guardian, Steve Richards asserts that if David Cameron had chosen a different date for the referendum, he would have won. He doesn’t explain why, but for the reasons I set out below, I suspect the outcome could have been different.

The timing of the referendum was a matter of political choice. The legislation which made provision for the referendum simply stated that it should take place by 31 December 2017, and even that was a political choice enshrined in law. It could have been changed.

The decision to go for June 2016 was the result of a number of factors.

First, having managed against expectation to secure an election victory in 2015, David Cameron did not want his premiership overshadowed by the issue of Europe. After all, he had also made clear that he would not be seeking to continue as Prime Minister after the scheduled 2020 election. He wanted the issue resolved and resolved quickly rather than having to deal with those in his party ‘banging on about Europe’.

Second, a Spring 2016 plebiscite was not going to work given his plans for EU reform and renegotiation before a referendum. The final deal on his ‘new settlement’ with the EU had been delayed after the December 2015 European Council failed to complete negotiations. Although agreement was reached in February 2016, the statutory ten-week referendum period would have risked a clash between the EU referendum and elections to the devolved parliaments in May.

Third, an Autumn referendum would have been an option following the summer recess and party conferences. But given the harrowing scenes the previous summer of refugees risking – and losing – their lives in the attempt to reach safety in Europe, a repeat over the summer of 2016 would be a difficult backdrop for the Prime Minister to make his pitch for the UK to remain in the EU.

But David Cameron did have other options.

The instinct to seek EU reform and renegotiation prior to a referendum was probably the right one but it wasn’t executed properly. This is not merely to repeat the attacks on David Cameron’s ‘new settlement’ renegotiations which were immediately trounced by his critics including the Eurosceptic press. Actually, as deals go, it wasn’t terrible. There was some substance to it and real concessions were made in relation to respecting the rights of non-Eurozone countries and in laying out a basis for legislative changes that would have restricted somewhat access to in-work benefits for migrant workers.

The mistake was not to see this as Phase I of a three-stage process which would have pushed back the timetable for a referendum. The renegotiation stage was never going to deliver a knock-out punch that would have tipped the result in his favour. If anything it became a rod for the Prime Minister’s back; a distraction from the real task of making the case both for EU membership and for future reform. Moreover, it focused attention on EU constitutional and institutional change more than it did on the delivery of common EU policies that might yield domestic social and economic benefits.

The Prime Minister should have been looking ahead to Phase II of a strategy: the UK’s Presidency of the EU that would start in July 2017. These rotating presidencies are often technical affairs of giving each Member State a turn at running the agenda of the Council for six months, with each presidency seeking to close deals on outstanding legislative dossiers. But they could be an opportunity for a Member State to decide to run with the idea that it is actually shaping the politics and policies of the EU. Summits can be convened. Declarations can be made. Statements of intent can be issued. What would have stopped David Cameron from setting out a policy agenda designed to show the electorate that cooperating with EU countries could be a force for good? Why wouldn’t EU leaders have wanted to offer a UK Prime Minister facing a difficult referendum every opportunity to show how working across borders was in the UK’s interest?

Of course, it would be important to pick out some key priorities. And if we learn something from the 2016 referendum campaign, it is that the ephemera of low-cost air transport, falling roaming charges and access to emergency healthcare while on holiday doesn’t cut it with an electorate that is more concerned with how global markets and porous borders make people feel insecure.

So here are three things a UK government could have run with. There is a degree of hindsight in that the issues chime with themes of the 2016 referendum campaign. But they were themes of the campaign and not products of them. The three examples are illustrations of how a UK Presidency could have been framed to build a case for retaining EU membership in a referendum to follow.

The first focal point would be around trade. As dramatised not just by the 2016 referendum but also the Trump and Le Pen election campaigns, support for ‘free trade’ has weakened on the Right as well as the Left. Instead of dragging its feet on the reform of EU trade defence instruments (‘TDIs’) – with the Commission having produced new proposals back in 2013 – the UK could have got on board with a strategic reform of EU TDIs – with a clear commitment to complete legislative changes under its EU Presidency. Free trade would need to be fair trade.

The second thing it could have done would have been to reframe some of the debate about people and borders by focusing on issues of exploitation. Part of that initiative could have been around trafficking of people, focusing on enhancing cross-border police and judicial cooperation. But another part could have been about steps to prevent the exploitation of migrant labour.  To be sure this wouldn’t deal with the issue of the numbers of people moving to work in the UK (the ‘new settlement’ dealt with some of the access to benefits side of things). And it would need to be complemented by domestic policies around restoring funding to councils facing particular pressures on public services (the Conservative-Liberal coalition having axed the fund that Gordon Brown had established). But it would help reframe some of the discourse to focus on migrants as potentially vulnerable people.

The third thing would be to look at what the EU budget is spent on. One of the problems the EU faces is the disconnect between what the EU does and what Member States do. The fundamental aspects of the welfare, education and health services which people care about and which influences their voting behaviour are provided nationally. The EU’s budget is spent on other things including supporting the income of farmers, regional development, and education and research. With a view to a wider reform of the EU budget, a UK Presidency could have championed an initiative to earmark part of the EU budget to support a major new drive to cut cancer rates across the EU. This would include new research and help to ensure the availability of cancer treatments. Given the domestic political problems around the high costs of cancer drugs and the use of national budgets to support cancer treatments, this could be an opportunity to harness the EU budget to support national healthcare.

It would not be realistic to think that the Prime Minister would have wished to hold a referendum on EU membership during the UK’s Presidency. On that basis, the artificial deadline of the end of 2017 would have needed to be changed. But there is another reason to push back the date.

The final phase of the process would be for the UK to support a wider process of EU reform. The 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome would be celebrated in the months leading up to the UK Presidency and with it, a process of reflection would begin on the future of the EU. The UK could have taken the initiative to lead this process of reflection during its Presidency with a view to seeking common ground on the reforms that the EU needs to its budget, to its processes and its institutions. The elections to the French Presidency and the German Chancellorship would have been completed by the end of a UK Presidency. While again we need to be careful about hindsight, would a Cameron, Macron and Merkel show of unity have helped drive a process of European political and treaty reform (aided by the alternative universe of a Trump White House)?

For good reason, David Cameron believed that a referendum on a future reform treaty would not suffice. At its simplest, the risk that ratification problems elsewhere in Europe would render a referendum in the UK redundant and so deny voters the opportunity to express their views was all too apparent.

However, the UK could have made clear in advance that it would immediately hold a referendum on any new treaty and that as this new treaty was about setting the course for the EU’s future, any rejection by the UK electorate would be tantamount to a rejection of membership (but with wiggle room for a further round of negotiations should the treaty be rejected). Other EU states would need to await the outcome in the UK.

It would be folly to claim that the outcome would have been obviously different. But it can be argued that a phased approach to an EU referendum would have given David Cameron more options. The UK’s Presidency of the EU was an opportunity squandered.