That both sides in the EU referendum are trading insults and dodgy assertions, sprinkled with the odd downright lie, is hardly surprising. This is politics in the raw. At stake on June 23rd is the country, a place in history and potentially the keys to Number 10. Someone is going to win and someone is going down in flames. That being the case it is hardly surprising that it is all getting a little out of hand. It is no good expecting this battle to be conducted politely. It is far too late for that.
Even so, even making allowances for how stressed and tired the key combatants are, the attack by Amber Rudd on Boris Johnson in the latest ITV debate took the breath away. She said:
“Boris is the life and soul of the party. But he isn’t the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening!”
What did Amber Rudd mean? Many people heard it – understandably – as a date-rape metaphor, playing on fears of the dodgy taxi driver who cannot be trusted late at night with a woman’s safety. At the very least, and being charitable, it was a drink-driving reference.
Remember, Rudd is a member of the Cabinet talking to a colleague and potential leader of the Conservative party. It would be astonishing if the anti-Boris line about driving home was not scripted with the approval of the Prime Minister or the Chancellor, and my goodness they had better hope they win. Any slim hope there was of a compromise – a moment for the PM on the steps of Number 10 with Gove and Boris, and a healing speech – has whittled away to almost nothing, when the Prime Minister uses a surrogate to make that “not safe in taxis” assault on the former Mayor of London. No wonder Boris was furious. At the height of the Hezza v Thatcher feud those involved did not talk to each other in the Rudd manner, or not in public.
The comment was, of course, part of the Remain strategy to goad Boris Johnson in the hope that he blows up and says something daft. Incidentally, try a little thought experiment and ask what the reaction would have been if Boris had said something similarily insulting to Rudd, such as: “Amber’s great fun, but not the kind of girl you’d want to take home to meet your mum.” He would have resigned by breakfast. Or the Leave campaign would have fired him. Yet, Rudd’s comment is somehow supposed to be acceptable?
It was though most revealing for what it demonstrated about the state of mind of those running the Remain campaign. Remain is behaving like a campaign that is losing the referendum, and in the process it has lost the plot. I am particularly struck by this line one sees a lot on social media from leading Remainers that Brexiteers are stupid, which is not an approach likely to win over the undecideds who lean to Brexit but who might be wooed back.
The PM’s pollster Lord Cooper was at it at the other night saying on Twitter that virtually all serious people in the world are opposed to Brexit. Please, say the Leave campaign, keep up these insults.
What is spooking Remain and producing Establishment terror that is quite something to behold is that they are in the soup right now. Their terrible campaign seems to be in trouble in Labour areas and the shock and awe scare campaign that was supposed to have achieved a breakthrough by now looks increasingly ridiculous. With less than a fortnight to go, it is Leave that has the advantage.
In Punditland, this is a testing moment too for those who have blithely said that of course Remain will win this because only loons are for Brexit apparently. In some quarters, the realisation that they are not winning is producing incoherent rage with their fellow citizens, which is not a good look.
Will it mean defeat for Remain? I have no idea and anyone who tells you they know is lying, guessing or wittering. As we used to say in the west of Scotland during my youth: nobody has a Scooby (as in Scooby Do, clue). After the victories of Corbyn, Trump and the slip in the fortunes of the SNP recently, my trade has surely got over the daft idea that predictions are worth anything. The columnist as seer rather than observer and explainer of the chaos is a new and ultimately pointless invention. I speak as someone who has, foolishly, several times in recent years made such bold “calls” and been right sometimes and wrong sometimes.
For the truth is that this is a UK-wide contest without any precedent since 1975. Unlike in a general election, every vote counts – even in places where for years there has been no point voting. It cannot be plotted seat by seat. Turnout could 60%. It could be 80%. There could be a shy Remain vote, as quiet conservatives swing it decisively for the status quo. Or the anecdotal stuff – that out there strange things are happening, forces have been unleashed – that win it for Leave. Yes, there is much data-mining going on in the campaigns, and whichever side wins will claim to have planned it all along with the help of tech wizards. The truth is that we don’t know and they don’t know. Millions of votes are swirling around. People are listening to the arguments and the voters will decide. Might this concept catch on?