Small Minds Discuss People: The Media’s Coverage Of The EU Referendum

Boris Johnson - Theresa May - EU Referendum - Brexit - Conservative Party

The EU referendum is about the British people, not the Westminster game of thrones

Another day brings another tiresome round of court gossip about which Conservative ministers might potentially campaign for Britain to leave the European Union in the coming referendum.

This time the breathless gossip is reported in Guido Fawkes:

A co-conspirator tucking into his ravioli in Westminster’s Quirinale restaurant looked up to see Theresa May and Liam Fox settling down to lunch. An hour earlier Fox had asked the Home Secretary for assurances over the government’s line on Russia, so you can bet that was on the menu. Though the main topic for discussion will almost certainly have been Europe.

There has been speculation that May has been meeting with leading Eurosceptics as she keeps her options open ahead of the referendum. Where better for Dr Fox to lobby her to lead the Out campaign than one of the pricier Italian restaurants in SW1? 

While the Evening Standard gushes about Boris Johnson:

What vexes the fledgling campaign to stay in the EU is the prospective behaviour of Boris Johnson and Theresa May: in the words of one Westminster insider, “they are the only players who could change the weather”.

True enough. Boris has the popular appeal to make the Out campaign blossom with optimism and good cheer, ridding it at a stroke of its negative, wintry disposition. May, on the other hand, would bring the authority of a great office of state to the Brexit campaign. Both politicians are taken seriously within the Tory tribe as prospective successors to Cameron. Small wonder that their every move is being scrutinised so closely.

Seasoned Boris-watchers (or Bozzologists) admit that his behaviour is presently inscrutable. Those I have spoken to incline — just — to the view that he will decide eventually to stick with the In camp, though without much conviction.

Before going on to say of Theresa May:

In 2010 May was startled to be given such a senior brief. Since then she has become incrementally persuaded that she has what it takes to succeed Cameron. Like Boris, she knows her leadership prospects are intimately entangled with her conduct in the EU referendum. But if she is serious about taking on the boys for the top job, she should give the Out camp a wide berth.

As Michael Heseltine used to say as he prepared his challenge to Margaret Thatcher, most contenders only have one bullet in the chamber. If May aligns herself with the Out movement, she will be handing the gun to others and inviting them to do as they please with her accrued political capital. So if her head has indeed been turned by the flattery of the Brexit crew, it should be turned back — and fast.

Because we all know that the really important thing in this referendum is not the profound and historic choice that the British people will make about how we wish to be governed in the twenty-first century, but rather the salacious court gossip over which cabinet ministers and wannabe future Tory leaders will risk their bright young (or not-so-young) careers by allying themselves with the Brexit cause.

Never mind that awkward S-word, sovereignty. That’s boring. Never mind a detailed and difficult discussion about the realities of global governance. That would require research. Proving the adage that great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss people, most of the British media is happy to talk about people and the petty personalities involved in the public debate, to the near total exclusion of everything else.

If you want serious, granular analysis and argument on either side of the referendum debate, there is no point looking in the pages of the Times, the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Spectator or any other publication claiming prestige. All you will find there are thinly veiled press releases from one or other of the groups squabbling for lead designation, or worryingly naive editorials from household name commentators who sound suspiciously like they have done no independent research of their own. Very unimpressive.

No, for serious analysis you have to turn to the blogosphere, and sites like and Leave HQ on the Brexit side, or Hugo Dixon on the Remain side. And the difference is like walking from a junior school classroom to a tutorial room at Oxford or Cambridge. Absent are the mindless platitudes and stale (often long-ago disproven) talking points that are so often repeated on television and in the broadsheets, and in their place are references to the real, murky world of global regulation – a world which, once discovered, proves that the EU is not the “top table” as europhiles blithely claim, but also that an orderly Brexit would not lead to an instant “bonfire of the regulations” as some on the Leave side stubbornly insist.

Some eurosceptics and Brexiteers would say I am wasting my time by even bothering to mention low-grade newspaper gossip such as the Boris Johnson vs Theresa May game of thrones. And they have a good point, to a degree. This referendum is about the British people and what they think is best, not what government ministers, opposition politicians or establishment media figures may want. Fair enough.

But you can’t just look at these shenanigans in isolation. Is the coming Brexit referendum the most important thing to happen politically in a generation? Yes, absolutely. But that does not mean that we should focus on the referendum outcome to the extent that we ignore the failings and misdeeds of the political class who were here before the referendum became a reality and will (sadly) be here long after it is but a footnote in history.

There is the future stewardship of the country to think about. And I want Britain’s future political leaders to be (so far as possible) principled people with the courage of their convictions. If they claimed to hold a certain view on an important issue like Britain’s membership of the European Union to get elected, they should then follow that through once in office.

Consequently, this blog will be taking a very dim view indeed of any Conservative politician who wrapped themselves in the cloak of euroscepticism to win selection, only to run loyally to David Cameron’s heels like an obedient dog and campaign for a “Remain” vote when it really counts.

This debate should be about ideas first and foremost. That is where this blog will focus. However – and maybe this a sign that I lack a great mind – I for one will certainly remember those people who put their personal careers ahead of their commitment to democracy when it comes to this existential referendum.

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7 thoughts on “Small Minds Discuss People: The Media’s Coverage Of The EU Referendum

  1. David Taylor (@majesticbanana) January 22, 2016 / 9:04 AM

    I was watching Sky News last night, and they showed the following clip of David Cameron at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

    He says: “But I do want this to be very clear, if there is not the right deal I am not in a hurry, I can hold my referendum at any time up until the end of 2017 and it’s much more important to get this right, than to rush it.”

    He thinks it’s his referendum! The referendum belongs to the British people.


    • paddybriggs January 22, 2016 / 9:12 AM

      It certainly doesn’t belong to me. A totally unnecessary distraction at a time when there is much to do to restore economic and social fairness in Britain. This referendum was necessary for one reason only. For Cameron to try and get some unity in the bitterly divided Conservative Party. And to counter UKIP. It won’t work. Even if the “Remain” side prevails (I hope it does) the Europhobes won’t go away. They’ll always be with us. 😨


    • Samuel Hooper January 22, 2016 / 10:39 AM

      I saw the same quote featured in the Telegraph’s live blog of the WEF yesterday, and like you was completely outraged by the arrogance of David Cameron’s pompous, self-important choice of words. Thinking of writing a short rebuttal on the blog.


  2. paddybriggs January 22, 2016 / 8:31 AM

    Very good article and I’m delighted that on this at least the Left has the moral high ground! When Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership canditure was gathering pace I was leaning towards supporting him. The only thing that stopped me was what I saw as an ambivalence towards Europe. The old Hard Left, 40 years ago, was, of course, viscerally opposed to the Common Market/EU and Corbyn was part of that. In the meantime Labour has become not just pro UK in the EU but nearly 100% united on the issue. There are a few dissidents (the eccentric Kate Hoey etc.) but Labour is the leading pro EU force in Britsin by far. Corbyn has gone along with this (reluctantly I suspect).

    There is nothing new about the Conservatives being divided on Europe. But where 40 years ago it was a small Powellite fringe now it’s perhaps half the Party as well as their bastard child UKIP. Quite how “anti EU” moved from being the preserve of the Hard Left to that of the Hard Right is a doctoral study in waiting! When there are such divides players will intrigue and plot. I have utter contempt for those using the issue to play Party games and agree totally that it is unsavoury.


  3. thelyniezian January 21, 2016 / 11:48 PM

    Indeed I am and have for a long while been sick of the inane ramblings over supposed power politics inside the Westminster bubble. The BBC is not the least offender in this either. I used to shout at the radio in my student days over gossip over whether Brown was planning to take over from Blair, &c. (I wondered how they could possibly know, but after watching Yes Minister, realising they have their ways and means…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Samuel Hooper January 22, 2016 / 10:51 AM

      Agreed. This “politics as spectator sport” is harmful to our democracy whether it’s the Blair/Brown power struggle distracting attention from Labour’s ideological and intellectual stagnation, or the will they/won’t they intrigue over which Tory cabinet ministers will dare to side with Leave in the coming referendum.

      Also, I feel it reflects a certain arrogance on the part of the media. A kind of disdainful assumption that the people are too stupid to get to grips with the meat of the issue, and that the only way to get us to pay any attention at all is to dumb everything down to the crudest, most cartoonified personality politics. There are millions of people who are capable of grappling with the complexities of the Brexit issue, and they should not be held to ransom by the false assumption of the media that we will all switch our televisions off at the first sign of anything complex.

      Liked by 1 person

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