While many Brexiteers may be in line for a gold star for trying hard, the official Vote Leave campaign and its major spokespeople are coasting for a big fat F when it comes to execution
With little more than a month to go until voting in the EU referendum, it is worthwhile for Leavers and Brexiteers to pause, take stock of where we are and conduct a candid review of our strengths and weaknesses – what is working, and what is actively setting back the cause of independence from the European Union.
This blog post is not such a detailed report – though some other intrepid Brexiteer may well wish to create one, as a matter of historical record if nothing else. For in truth one does not need to dive deep into the poll numbers or aggregated political analysis to see that the Leave campaign is not only on course to lose the EU referendum, but is actively doubling down on those behaviours and activities which make defeat more likely.
For evidence, one has only to regard this crowing article in the New Statesman, in which Glenis Willmott gloats about the overly-emotional, rank amateurism of the country’s most prominent voices for Brexit.
One can almost hear the glee in her heart as Willmott writes:
They needed a new argument, a positive, forward-looking vision for what they see as the future of Britain… but they realised they didn’t have one so reverted to WWII and Hitler. Having lost all arguments on the economy, Vote Leave’s Boris Johnson raised the spectre of Hitler, talking about superstates and “historical parallels” between the EU and Nazi Germany. And they’re accusing the Remain campaign of being fearmongers?
They’ve complained about the terms of the debate. They’ve accused broadcasters of conspiring with the government. They’ve said journalists would be punished, and called for civil servants to be sacked. They’ve said they’ll disrupt pro-EU meetings and target pro-EU businesses. At every stage they’ve attacked individuals or organisations and not their arguments. And now they’ve invoked Godwin’s Law by comparing their opponents to Hitler.
Their tactics are the textbook definition of the increasingly desperate behaviour of the losing side in a debate.
It’s what happens when you’ve given up on convincing the undecideds and care only about firing up die-hard Eurosceptics, praying for a low-turnout poll, which Vote Leave privately admits is their strategy. Having lost the argument on the economy, they’re now following step-by-step the UKIP guide to politics: attack foreigners, bash immigrants and peddle conspiracy theories of continental plots to take over Britain, likening Brussels of today to Berlin of yesteryear. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so serious.
And who can disagree with her? People expect some kind of positive message if they are to vote for a campaign – it can’t all be doom and gloom. And while the Remain campaign are certainly no strangers to scaremongering, they do at least take time to waffle on about their vague, fictionally pleasant European Union, a naive vision of a loose association of countries coming together on a super voluntary basis to fight crime, trade with one another and enshrine rights for working people.
Never mind that this idealised vision of the European Union is complete nonsense (and it is). People believe it because Vote Leave are too busy shouting about building a new hospital on every street corner with the money we supposedly save from leaving the EU that they almost totally neglect to pick apart Stronger In’s incredibly superficial and deceptive sales pitch.
It does, therefore, strongly appear as though Vote Leave have given up on winning the new support of anybody without a long-held antipathy toward the EU, choosing to focus instead on firing up the base and praying for a low turnout. Sadly, this almost never works. Brexiteers fired up on lashings of anti-immigration, “they need us more than we need them” rhetoric can still only vote once, just like everyone else. A fervent minority is still a referendum-losing minority.
Worse still, when they aren’t ranting about building hospitals on top of hospitals on top of hospitals in their utopian post-Brexit Britain, Vote Leave and other eurosceptic big beasts love nothing more than to prance around playing the role of the aggrieved victim. Despite having known for a long time that the prime minister is an unrepentant europhile and that the Cameron/Osborne “renegotiation” was nothing more than a deceptive piece of theatre, the brightest stars in the eurosceptic firmament somehow neglected to come up with a countervailing strategy besides running weeping to the media, sobbing about how unfair it all is.
Mary Ellen Synon puts it very well over at her excellent new Brexit blog:
This kind of complaint is worse than useless, it is embarrassing.
Anyone over the age of six who squeals, ‘He’s not playing fair!’ is absurd.
Of course Cameron is not playing fair. Of course he has been involved in secret dealings with big business. He is a politician who intends to win, and he has form for exactly this kind of behaviour.
I therefore have no time for Tories such as the MP Jacob Rees-Mogg who is reported today to be ‘furious’ over Cameron’s secret FTSE dealings.
Rees-Mogg told the Bruges Group in London that Cameron’s secret Remain dealings with the big corporations while he still worked to make people believe he might support Britain leaving the EU was ‘a scandal of the highest order.’ He said it appeared Parliament had been misled by Cameron.
Yet Rees-Mogg is a member of a party that was happy to go on backing Cameron even after he betrayed his ‘cast-iron guarantee’ to give the British people a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
That betrayal was in 2009. Cameron was a weasel then; he is a weasel now. It is no good for Leave campaigners such as Rees-Mogg to act as if they have only just realised it.
Quite. While it is not unreasonable to remark on the levels of deceit and lack of principle emanating from the Conservative Party leadership – pity the day when we come to accept it as unremarkable, or even virtuous – there is no point building a national referendum campaign around the fact. Besides the fact that momentum matters in elections and moping around weeping that you got a raw deal is like a big neon sign declaring that the momentum is with the other side, we are back to the fact that the Leave campaign does not have a compelling vision of an alternative Britain outside the EU.
And Vote Leave failed to come up with an alternative vision for Britain because that would mean having some kind of plan for Brexit. And they long ago decided that their unrepentant lack of a Brexit plan was somehow going to be their greatest selling point.
As Synon concludes:
The Leave campaign needs to stop whining that the campaign is ‘unfair,’ because of course it is.
However, Cameron is winning this referendum not because he is slippery, he is winning it because the official Leave campaign has described no clear, safe path out of the EU for the voters.
In other words, Cameron is not winning this campaign. The Leave campaign is losing it by being unthinking, uninformed, and unorganised.
This much is true: Cameron is not winning, but rather the Leave campaign is losing. And while the pro-EU side may have the advantage, at least this is not based on the great skill of the Remain campaign. David Cameron and his motley crew are coasting by using the advantage of their bully pulpit and the public’s natural hesitancy to depart from the status quo as their chief weapons. Even most Remainers would likely concede, under pressure, that Cameron achieved no meaningful concessions in his renegotiation, and that they cannot say with certainty what the EU will look like in five, ten or twenty years’ time, for example.
Right now this is enough, because Vote Leave have decided to fritter away their time and resources making ridiculous promises, playing the victim and invoking Godwin’s Law. Thus the Remain campaign is winning by default. But their numbers are potentially soft – people are sticking with Remain only because Boris Johnson doesn’t look like the type of man who can tie his shoes unaided, and because the avalanche of establishment opinion (organisations with no mandate to care about democracy but with strong interests in maintaining short term economic stability) coming down on the side of staying in the EU.
Realistically, there is no chance now that Vote Leave will significantly change their tactics, or suddenly embrace Flexcit and the EFTA/EEA model as a stepping stone out of political union. That ship has sailed. The only hope is that the Remain campaign’s principle strength – the overwhelming support of the establishment – may yet become its biggest weakness. And this could well happen.
Right now, Stronger In can point to a cast of thousands of the great and the good who have all lined up to tell the British people that the EU is wonderful, that Cameron negotiated a brilliant new deal and that exiting political union would lead to economic (and even military) armageddon. But what if this stops acting in their favour? These are febrile, uncertain times where little is certain except for the fact that those in positions of authority are distrusted and despised as almost never before. So what if the British political establishment, Barack Obama, Christine Lagarde, David Cameron and his CEO buddies all singing from the same hymn sheet begins to seem more like a stitch-up than wise counsel? What if their unanimity becomes more like a criticality accident of sanctimonious, self-interested elites clubbing together for their own gain rather than the sober, high-minded intervention they like to imagine?
Returning to the half term report card analogy, right now it is fair to say that the official Leave campaign has failed every single piece of coursework they have been set so far. This is not good. But fortunately, fifty percent of the total class grade is based on the end of term exam, and here we have an opportunity to make up some distance. We are never going to get an A and win by a landslide, but a concerted effort in the right direction and a hefty dose of luck* could yet bring us to 50% +1, which is all we need.
So do not despair, fellow Brexiteers. A pathway to victory still exists, albeit one which is heavily dependent on luck, or “events, my dear boy, events“. Fighting the EU referendum with Vote Leave in the driving seat is like being partnered with the class idiot for an important assignment – we are going to have to do all the leg work while they thrash around attention-seeking and disrupting everyone else. It will be difficult, but it can be done. Just buckle down, hope that the shining ones at Vote Leave towers manage to keep a lid on their worst excesses, and then pray for some kind of game-changing event to shake up the board.
This thing isn’t over until it’s over.
*mostly involving Vote Leave sitting out a few rounds and letting the adults take a turn.
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