For readers of CapX outside the UK, or indeed for anyone in the UK not particularly interested in the imminent EU referendum, I must apologise for what follows. I began the day determined to write my weekly newsletter about something else, anything else, other than the vote the UK will hold in June on whether or not to leave the European Union.
US politics is about as interesting as it has ever been in recent decades, and with a trip to Washington and New York looming I am even more than usual gripped by developments in America. Transport technology, particularly the hyperloop development on the US West Coast and driverless cars, is another subject that is fascinating right now. There is the possibility in the near future of a welcome reduction in car ownership and waste, as we move to having driverless accounts that summon the car we want, to drive us on a night out or for a longer distance. The US West Coast hyperloop rail system that involves being fired by pod (don’t laugh) at hundreds of miles an hour, if it works and can be imported in the 2020s or 2030s, would change the UK dramatically. Forget current fears about the London property market and shortages in the South East. Live in lovely Lancashire or Somerset instead and be sped into central London in half an hour. This is not a joke. A decade ago people used to laugh at “fracking” and shale gas, and the US is now self-sufficient in energy. The hyperloop could be the transport equivalent of that energy revolution. Why in those circumstance is the UK going to spend the next two decades and £50bn taking twenty minutes off the journey time between London and Birmingham with HS2, conventional high speed rail? The answer is that once the British government machine gets going with an idea (even a bad idea) it often grinds on remorselessly. It would take a new British Prime Minister later in the decade to yell “stop!” and examine other options for road, rail and airports.
But sorry, I am not going to write about any of that interesting stuff this week. There’s no way round it. There is only one show in town, and that is the shenanigans ahead of the EU referendum. I could if you like give you a robust take on how the two (three? four?) Brexit camps should jolly well get their act together and all that jazz. I could muse on the European leaders who seem not to realise that they have won and even now are pushing back on Cameron’s non-deal, putting him in a potentially dangerous position if the deal is watered down even further. Instead, I’ll try to explain – relatively quickly – what is really behind the war in the rival Leave campaigns, and the potential consequences.
1) The battle is for the official designation next month. Whichever rival Leave campaign becomes official will secure 50% of TV and radio time and will go head to head with the Prime Minister and other In leaders in the debates being planned by broadcasters. The other Leave campaign, starved of airtime and attention will either disappear or exist as a social media effort or adjunct of the official Leave campaign.
2) It was anticipated in Westminster that the moderate Vote Leave – run by Matthew Elliott (brains behind the successful anti-AV operation) and Dominic Cummings, a former adviser to Michael Gove – would easily secure the designation. They have many big Tory donors behind them.
3) From the beginning, Vote Leave wanted to exclude UKIP because (and Faragists cannot understand this) they are toxic with many voters who might otherwise be persuaded to vote for Leave. Really, to get this they need to talk to their fellow citizens who don’t wear Union Jack underpants. For many people UKIP is just beyond the pale, completely. If Nigel Farage had resigned after the last UK general election, then this would not have been such a problem, as the highly reasonable and charming Suzanne Evans would probably have become leader and repaired some of the damage. It would then have been much easier to fuse UKIP into the wider Leave movement. Instead, Farage stayed on and formed Leave EU with the help of UKIP donor Aaron Banks and others.
4) Leave EU began with the hope of arranging a merger, although Vote Leave says it was really a takeover bid. Big Tory donors in particular are wary of funding a UKIP-front. Moderate Vote Leave, in fairness and contrary to the coverage that suggested a two way war, did not respond in the hope that Farage would get nowhere. Leave EU’s attacks became increasingly heated, presumably because they realised that if they could not get a merger they would be left outside during the 10 week official campaign and at the great historic moment of the referendum Farage would be irrelevant.
5) Banks and his friends were clever though and he has been nice to Tory and Labour MPs, encouraging them to speak at events. The contrast with Vote Leave was stark. There, Dominic Cummings wound up a lot of people, particularly MPs. He is intellectually self-assured to the point of inflexibility, and not known for his diplomatic skills. Bafflingly he has also from the start aired his take on the campaign on social media and in articles, which is not the role of a strategist, or not one who can expect to succeed in holding together a bunch of politicians.
6) Times columnist Danny Finkelstein always maintains that the phrase “too clever by half” is a nonsense. He asks what’s wrong with being clever? It is a fair point, but excludes the possibility that someone can be so theoretically clever that they overlook practical concerns and ignore common sense. I like Dom Cummings and admire his past work at education with Michael Gove, but he has behaved in a manner that fits the description too clever by half and it may end up having consequences on a grand, historical scale.
7) This week, Labour Leave (keep up, the Labour Eurosceptic campaign group) has resigned (at the time of writing) from Vote Leave over Cummings and the direction of the campaign. This is a much bigger deal than it looks, as they are now sitting there in the middle leaving moderate Vote Leave unable to claim to be cross party, a key qualification for winning the designation. Terrifyingly for Vote Leave, Labour MPs are appearing at rival events.
8) It is now a serious possibility that Leave EU – effectively Farage and Banks – win the designation and become the official Out team. They have signed up many people on social media and are having great fun stoking the infighting among their rivals
All of this is a) mad b) hilarious c) heartbreaking d) enjoyable (take your pick) but it could well decide whether the UK stays in the EU or not. The Outers theoretically should be in a good position because the Prime Minister’s deal with the EU was so poorly received and the efforts by loyalists to claim otherwise are making them look shifty. And although the polling is mixed, outside the London bubble there is grave concern about migration and borders, to such an extent that if the Eurosceptics get it together then Leave could win this.
Almost all that sense of possibility vanishes if Farage is leader of Leave. The campaign would then be Farage v David Cameron, with Cameron on the same side as much of the Tory tribe, Labour, the SNP and moderate voters who cannot stand – really, cannot stand – UKIP. Much hangs on these notionally comical events. Indeed, it is very difficult to see Leave EU winning the designation as anything other than the end for Brexit.