The last two weeks have been dominated by the EU referendum as I am sure the following three months will be. However it is not rational debate of the issues and policy, it is the personalities within it that have fallen centre stage and, if things remain as they are, the personalities who will decide it.
As things stand there is no possibility of a rational debate about whether to remain or leave. The Leave campaign(s) are yet to outline what a leave vote would look like, as Remain regularly remind us. This means that not only will Remain continue to receive accusations of a negative campaign (possibly rightly so given Leave’s flaws) but Leave are not allowing a rational debate to take place as they provide no coherent vision to discuss. One may be able to discuss a vague concept of sovereignty or what a utopian EU-free Britain could be. But these are ideals that may not be achievable and, regardless of that, are intangible to the voters.
On the 23rd of June voters will be far more interested in the credibility of the options that they have in front of them. If the state of the Leave campaign(s) remains as it is the credibility factor will be heightened to new extremes as voters are not being given a clear or rational choice, only ‘a leap into the dark’ or an unsatisfactory remain. This is when the leading personalities become so influential.
The Wrong Individual?
Remain have an issue and his name is Lord Rose. An accusation of the EU that sticks for the left and politically discontent, is that the EU is a banker’s union; that it does not work in the interests of white van man, but of multimillionaires and the much loathed inhabitants of the City of London. Unfortunately for Britain Stronger In, the multimillionaire Conservative Lord epitomises this. Although his business acumen is highly respectable, and this is no personal attack on him, he is not the individual who can tackle this accusation and win.
His performance at the Treasury Select Committee demonstrated this. Asked whether reduced migration would increase the wages of UK low and semi-skilled workers Lord Rose replied ‘yes, but that is not necessarily a good thing’. The Leave.EU campaign claimed it showed how “Brussels’ cheerleaders” wanted to “protect vested interests, not the public interest”. Lord Rose cannot effectively refute this accusation. He comes across as much of what those disconnected with politics and the EU feel.
Remain cannot simply ignore those who believe they have lost out from the EU and migration, but nor can it merely accept Leave’s accusations. The few Leave arguments that currently stick must be effectively refuted by a credible figure. Britain Stronger In need a figurehead who will point toward increased aggregate demand creating more jobs and potentially higher wages, and make the case for ‘the man in street’ rather than appearing as representatives of the man in the ivory tower. Unfortunately Lord Rose may have been the wrong choice entirely.
The Right Collective and Hurdles Negotiated
However, Remain has one very strong figurehead in its ranks – however much this pains me to acknowledge – David Cameron. He is a popular Prime Minister who is, most importantly, perceived as a hugely credible and pragmatic figure. He is seen by the public to make a decision on what is best for Britain’s interests rather than his own; the importance of this cannot be understated and it is this that Boris lacks. Teflon Dave will be the most influential figure in this referendum. What’s more he is backed by respected figureheads from across the political spectrum for a further broadened appeal: Farron and Clegg for the Liberals; Corbyn, Blair, Brown, Miliband and trade unions for the left; Sir John Major and members of his own party for the right.
An accusation of the EU that sticks for both the left and the right is that it is undemocratic. Remain campaigners accept this point and it is at the heart of the progressives’ dissatisfaction with the EU. The political left are largely supporters of the EU, as demonstrated by all but 8 of Labour’s MPs’ support for Remain. It is for this reason that many feared the Prime Minister would negotiate away elements of the social chapter and workers’ rights. This hurdle has been safely negotiated, but one more remains for the pro-EU left. Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn voted, alongside his mentor and friend Tony Benn against the EU in 1975 and advocated withdrawal under Michael Foot, largely arguing the afore mentioned criticism. Yet as Labour leader he and John McDonnell are reined into a position of Euro-philia. This is hugely important as Labour supporters form an integral block in the Remain winning formula. If Corbyn were to be purged following a hypothetically poor result in May’s elections and reverted to his previous position, this could spell disaster. A popular assault on the EU from the left as well as the right would see the referendum unwinnable, but whilst Labour’s left are held to the pro-EU position it seems difficult for Leave to gain ground. As things stand it is purely Remain’s to lose.
Why Leave are Heading for Defeat
The personalities heading Leave have the popular appeal of a fart on public transport: Ian Duncan Smith who was rejected in polls by the public and by his own party in 2003, and continues to be despised from the centre to the left. Michael Gove who left Education with ratings so negative they could only be surpassed by Jeremy Hunt (and at the moment Jeremy Corbyn). John Whittingdale (who?) who is apparently in the cabinet. And of course Nigel Farage who has comic appeal and die-hard supporters, but finds it near impossible to reach out from his base. Moreover he seems uninterested in reaching beyond this base as shown by his recent double sacking of Susanne Evans, the only UKIP (ex-) figurehead who consistently performs well in the media and has some form of broader appeal. This cohort are all capable of appealing to the political right and some of the disillusioned public, but they will not prove capable of garnering majority support, particularly when they cannot work coherently amongst themselves.
The ‘special guest’ George Galloway managed to cause an exodus of Leave supporters when he appeared at the Grassroots Out conference. If this is part of a strategy to broaden Leave’s support across the political spectrum then it is one that is doomed to fail.
And then we get to the peculiar case of Boris Johnson. He was held up as the golden chalice for the Leave campaign(s). The one man with a broad appeal. The one that everyone will listen to and can single-handedly swing the referendum. And they got him. But his effect has been and will be much overstated.
The public know that this decision was not made in the best interests of Britain, but in the best interests of Boris. This is the greatest hindrance on his ‘game changing’ abilities. Not an interview or news article goes by without his personal ambition being discussed, a constant reminder of his agonised self-interested calculation. Quotes from his past, as he twisted in the wind (or the polls) as to which way to fall come back to haunt him; and, as we saw on Marr this morning, under sustained pressure, and unable to pun his way out of semi-serious debate, he struggled. If one can argue that Boris ever had a measure of credibility, we may have seen it peak. The broad appeal that Leave need is not there.
All that could change Leave’s trajectory is an external shock – an economic or a further migration/asylum crisis. With warmer weather it is inevitable that more people desperately fleeing the war in Syria will come to Europe in the hope of protection. It is the scale of movement and our response that will determine what effect it has on the European referendum. But at the moment it seems that this is all the Leave-ers have in their favour – and ‘fingers crossed for a crisis’ won’t look good on the leaflets.