The UK and Europe

The referendum campaign starts proper

Mujtaba Rahman / Apr 2016

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


The EU referendum campaign has only just begun. The extensive coverage, debate and political intrigue we have watched since the referendum’s date was officially announced has been a disorganised rehearsal of what is to come between now and 23 June.

It is fair to say that Prime Minister Cameron, the most credible champion on the “Remain” side, did not fare well in this disorganized pre-campaign period. The final result of his renegotiation, heralded as a an opportunity to “reform Europe,” was panned by the press and failed to fulfil its main purpose – giving most Tory MPs a pretext to put years of Euroscepticism behind them and endorse continued membership. Over 140 are campaigning to leave. A media frenzy erupted when the much-liked Mayor of London Boris Johnson decided to join them.

Ahead of the mid-March budget speech, Cameron instructed Chancellor George Osborne to avoid any measures which could hurt the government’s credibility ahead of the referendum campaign. As slowing growth moved deficit projections for 2019-20 from black to red, cuts had to be made somewhere and Osborne chose to reform disability benefits and still go ahead with a planned raise of the 40p tax threshold, an effective tax cut for the rich. This gave Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, a life-long Eurosceptic, a perfect opportunity to damage his pro-EU bosses by resigning.

Then came the Panama papers. At no stage has it been suggested that Cameron has done anything remotely illegal, yet five separate statements from Downing Street culminating with a full disclosure of the Prime Minister’s tax returns do remind the public of his privileged background and diminish his capacity to argue that continued membership is better for all and not just the privileged few.

Finally, just before the official campaign began on 15 April, the Electoral Commission nominated the more threatening Vote Leave as the official campaign on the “Leave” side. Supported by all the dissenting Tory ministers, Vote Leave tries to paint an optimistic picture of a post-Brexit UK thriving under newfound flexibility and forging trade links with fast-growing economies.

With polls to close to call, having shown eight-point leads for “Remain” only one month ago, you could be forgiven for thinking the referendum is slipping through Cameron’s hands. But the “Remain” campaign has shifted gears since the end of last week. Even Eurosceptic media outlets are reproducing the facts and figures provided to them by Downing Street. The “Leave” campaign may call this “Project Fear” but the “Remain” campaign have come up with a good response by calling the Vote Leave’s vision of a hyper dynamic Britain “Project Fantasy.”

More and more international institutions have stepped into the campaign, President Obama (who still has some shine on him in the UK) will be in London to do the same. Businesses and advocacy groups are beginning to get involved. It would appear that the “Remain” campaign have a diverse range of status-quo advocates to choose from, whereas the “Leave” campaign is running out of non-eccentric options.

And then there’s turnout. It is correct that “Leave” supporters feel more strongly about this cause than “Remain” supporters. What's more, “Leave” supporters are more prevalent among segments of the electorate where turnout is always high. 

But polls consistently show that Britain’s economy is the issue which most concerns voters. Vote Leave has had some success in undermining economic arguments until now but this is a deliberate tactic to mask the uncertainties involved in Brexit. If the polls remain close, the economic arguments in favour of “Remain” are likely to regain force.

Mujtaba Rahman

Mujtaba Rahman

April 2016

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