In a three part series Atul Hatwal looks at the state of the two EU referendum campaigns and the likely winners and losers from the vote. For his second post, he reviews the performance of the Brexiteers.
Few would describe the Labour party as a model of electoral success in recent years.
But the two-headed Brexit team of Leave.EU and Vote Leave have contrived to ape Labour’s biggest mistakes over the past six years, combining the worst of Corbyn and Miliband to create a Frankenstein campaign that frequently defies belief.
The Faragists of Leave.EU are the Corbynistas of this campaign.
For Farage its immigration, for Corbyn its austerity, either way their mode of monomania is the same.
Britain’s electoral experience and current polling suggests that the economy matters most to voters.
But the Faragists don’t care about evidence.
Their faith-based approach to argument ignores the niceties of engaging with swing voters’ priorities in favour of shouting the same thing about their pet issue, EU migrants, over and over again, more and more loudly.
The stock response to set-backs or public rejection is to retreat into a nether-sphere of conspiracy theories about media bias, skewed polls and conniving, establishment lizard overlords.
The louder the Faragist tendency shouts, the more the anti-EU cause is seen by mainstream voters as a fringe concern propagated by advocates nearer David Icke than David Cameron on the credibility spectrum.
About the only thing that can be said in defence of the Faragists and Corbynistas, is that their position is at least constant.
In contrast, the Vote Leave campaign, who were meant to be the Brexit adults in the room, seem to have taken Ed Miliband as their model.
Like Miliband, they understood that banging on endlessly about what animates activists is not a route to victory.
They saw the importance of swing voters.
But like Miliband, they haven’t been able to bring themselves to act on voters’ concerns.
At the general election last year, Ed Miliband appreciated that trust on public spending was central to central to neutralizing Tory economic attacks on Labour.
That’s why he refused to commit Labour to the type of public expenditure that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell were calling for.
But Miliband couldn’t face the difficult choices needed to practically demonstrate Labour thrift. Instead he retreated into a poll-deluded comfort zone of inaction.
Ditto Vote Leave.
Dominic Cummings, Vote Leave’s ideological leader, identified the importance of addressing the economic threat at the outset. In 2014 he wrote,
“The official OUT campaign does not need to focus on immigration…The OUT campaign has one essential task – to neutralise the fear that leaving may be bad for jobs and living standards.”
All good common sense.
But then a year later executed this logic-defying leap of Milibandite proportions, when addressing how to map out Britain’s future after leaving the EU,
“There is much to be gained by swerving the whole issue”
No-one could criticise Ed Miliband for being a dullard. Dominic Cummings is widely regarded as a tremendously clever chap.
But academic smarts are very different to the more prosaic skills needed to win a campaign.
It is incredible, almost inconceivable, that Vote Leave, did not enter the campaign with a calm, settled, de-risked view of what Britain’s future outside the EU looked like.
If the obvious attack is going to be about the risk of the unknown, to not have a coherent response is campaign malpractice that merits an award of the order of the Ed-Stone, first class.
Vote Leave needed to have made a choice about a future model last year: Norway, Albania, Canada, WTO, whatever.
Making it would probably have generated division with their camp.
Taking difficult decisions often does that.
But it would have given clarity and a basis on which to organise their case.
This is Vote Leave’s original sin.
From this critical miscalculation, their campaign has foundered in three entirely predictable phases: defeat on the economic case for change, the flight of credible spokespeople and a forced retreat into the immigration comfort zone.
In the first stage, at the start of the year, if Vote Leave had picked a single future model for Brexit Britain, they would have had a clear answer to questions on Britain’s post-vote direction.
The position of bodies like the IMF or OECD was always going to be pro-Remain, but there are a plethora of institutions, across Europe and particularly the US, sympathetic to the Brexiteer cause.
Before the start of the campaign proper, these organisations could have been charged with developing an armoury of analysis to outline a brighter Brexit tomorrow and calm fears of economic disruption.
For every occasion the Remain camp quoted a study on the dangers of change, Vote Leave could have responded with one on the comparative threat from staying in the EU.
Instead, by flunking the choice on a future model, Vote Leave have been unable to marshal any independent validation of their position.
As a result, wave after wave of report, business letter and international figure proclaiming the dangers of Brexit have gone unrebutted.
Such a total rout on the substantive battle of the campaign has directly led to Vote Leave’s second big problem: the type of people they field to make their case.
Vote Leave desperately needed a range of surrogates spanning business, politics, academia and public service, to match the Remain campaign and demonstrate the broad-based nature of their coalition.
Who speaks for a cause is as important as the case being made.
But how many business leaders want to go up against Andrew Neil and be twisted inside-out trying to describe Britain’s future relationship with its trading partners when there’s no clear line to take?
There are lots of business people who support leaving the EU, particularly on the Tories’ high value donor list, but when the call has gone out to them the response has been a firm, “No.”
Labour faced a similar position with its business supporters in last year’s election.
This car crash interview with Kate Hoey, an experienced MP of almost thirty years standing, vividly illustrated the dangers of backing Brexit on air, to all prospective surrogates.
Equally, there is a deep vein of Euroscepticism running across the old right and hard left of the Labour party. But many Labour MPs who are privately sympathetic to Brexit have been less than willing to take Kate Hoey’s place in the interview stocks and be pelted with Brexit tomatoes in front of the nation.
This is why the roster fielded by Vote Leave has been so spectacularly narrow: almost wholly Conservative and dominated by eccentric and other-worldly figures such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees Mogg.
These might be engaging and well-liked characters within Westminster but to the rest of the country they are the political equivalent of the cast of Big Bang Theory.
A great bunch for an academic treatise on the evolution of the British constitution, less believable on the threat to peoples’ jobs from Brexit.
Defeat on the economy and a pool of spokesperson talent that is positively Saharan in its depth and vitality means Vote Leave has been forced over the last few weeks to the last place they wanted to be: a retreat to immigration.
What started as a centrist endeavour has descended into a facsimile of the Faragist approach that Vote Leave once derided.
Driven off the centre-ground, they have fallen back to the fringe in the hope that passion and activism are substitutes for actual support.
The frustration and anger of Brexit Twittervists now sets the tone for the campaign leadership rather than vice versa. Vote Leave are the ones proclaiming all opponents to be members of an establishment stitch-up and hinting at a coup against democracy by Mandelsonian puppets.
It is an uncanny echo of Labour’s general election campaign last year which started with a manifesto launch focusing on fiscal discipline and ended with the party forced onto health to ensure its increasingly angry and aggrieved base remained mobilised.
Labour’s experience at the election and that of the SNP’s at the independence referendum, who, lest we forget, also ended up fighting on health having been defeated on the economy, are instructive about where Vote Leave’s story ends.
Campaigns matter. This one particularly so. It was always going to be tough to over-turn an established status quo. But there was a chance for the Brexiteers, if they had fought the right way.
Vote Leave’s failure to settle on a model for post-Brexit Britain has condemned them to the fate they themselves predicted if Faragism dominated the Out case.
What was always likely to be a narrow defeat now looks to be a disaster in prospect, one which represents an existential threat to their cause.
A narrow loss would have enabled Eurosceptics to keep the flame of Brexit alive. Being beaten by solid double digits – as seems likely – means this issue will be settled for decades. Generations will pass before this question is revisited, if at all.
What a legacy for Vote Leave.
Not just defeat in this year’s referendum but the total destruction of the case for Britain to leave the EU.
Atul Hatwal is editor of Uncut