This week marks the anniversary of the Brexit vote, so you can expect to see lots of articles about the scandalous way that British voters were misled. How a group of manipulative and well-funded political charlatans played on the emotions and fears of credulous older voters less well educated than themselves.
I’m talking, of course, about the Remain campaign.
In the seven years since the referendum, we’ve had Carole Cadwalladr’s investigations and subsequent libel case, and award-winning documentaries about the funding and tactics of the Leave campaign. But far less attention has been paid to the systematic exaggeration and outrageous scaremongering of Remainers, and none more so that former Chancellor George Osborne. This is despite the fact that, unlike stories on data mining or Facebook algorithms, there’s evidence that what Osborne did reached tens of millions of people and genuinely changed many of their votes.
Let’s start with those glossy pamphlets designed and printed to look like official HMG or HMRC communications laying out what – they claimed – was dispassionate Treasury analysis of the consequences of a Leave vote. Remember this classic?
‘The analysis in this document comes to a clear central conclusion: a vote to leave would represent an immediate and profound shock to our economy. That shock would push our economy into a recession and lead to an increase in unemployment of around 500,000′
This was accompanied by an alarming press conference, where Osborne stood next to the Prime Minister and said:
‘With exactly one month to go to the referendum, the British people must ask themselves this question: can we knowingly vote for a recession? Does Britain really want this DIY recession? Because that’s what the evidence shows we’ll get if we vote to leave the EU.’
But it turned out that these dire warnings were not based on very much at all. The National Audit Office found in 2017 that key assumptions behind the reports were just plain wrong.
Noting that the nation’s GDP and employment were already ‘very different’ from the Treasury’s forecasts, it said:
‘Estimating impacts on economic variables is complex, particularly in assessing the potential consequences of leaving the EU, which has no precedent. The extent of the impact depends on future government policy and international negotiations which are yet to take place. This means that any estimates will be subject to a high degree of uncertainty.’
The Treasury’s worst-case scenario was for GDP to be 6% lower, with tax receipts to take a £36bn-a-year hit. In fact in the years between the referendum and the Covid pandemic GDP grew at least as quickly as that of EU powerhouse Germany.
The National Audit Office concluded that in future independent experts should be brought in to guard against ‘errors’.
What does that mean in plain English? It means that somewhere deep inside the Treasury, George Osborne and his officials put their fingers on the scales and finessed the figures to generate a one-sided and doom laden projection. Then they sent it to every household in the country dressed up as impartial advice.
But that’s not the half of it. I was involved on the periphery of the Labour Leave group and it soon became clear that many Labour voters were surprised that the party had joined the Remain side (remembering, like me, when the party and most Trade Unions had been firmly anti EEC/EU) and were thinking of voting Leave. Jeremy Corbyn’s own long history of euroscepticism hardly inspired activists to hit the doorsteps with a pro-EU message, and so few of them did with any conviction.
It didn’t take long for polls to show Leave pulling close, especially in what’s now known as the Red Wall, with one MP telling The Guardian on 30th May that:
‘We are sleepwalking to losing the damn thing… The polls say it’ll be fine but every doorstep someone tells you to f*** off.’
Perhaps one reason why the reactions were so vehement is that the two leading faces of the Remain campaign, Osborne and David Cameron, had spent the previous six years pushing tough austerity policies on Labour-voting communities.
Then some polling from the Britain Stronger In Europe group was leaked which claimed that only about half of Labour voters even knew that their party was in favour of staying in the EU, with the rest thinking it was split or pro-Brexit. Even more worrying for the Remainers, the same research suggested that leave voters felt more passionate about the issue and were more likely to turn out on the day.
But the red lights really flashed on 13th June when a Guardian poll had Leave with a 53%-47% advantage once ‘don’t knows’ were excluded.
Something needed to be done to change the mind of those ill-informed Labour Leave voters. And what was done, just two days after the Guardian poll, was the single most disgraceful press conference I’ve ever witnessed.
George Osborne stood up alongside former Labour chancellor Alistair Darling and suddenly announced that the economic prognosis was so very dire that, in the event of a Leave victory, there would have to be an emergency budget with cuts to pensions and benefits, along with tax rises and any amount of other fiscal horrors.
Is there any other way of interpreting this extraordinary moment other than a naked attempt to terrify the old and the poor? Vote the wrong way, Osborne was saying, and we’re coming for your pensions and your benefits. That a Labour party grandee stood smiling alongside Osborne as he twisted the knife still shocks me today.
Those of us who had campaigned against the Tories for decades had seen how brutally effective such tactic could be. Alistair Darling, like me, would have memories of the heartbreaking 1992 election during which the entirely spurious ‘Labour’s Tax Bombshell’ campaign derailed Neil Kinnocks’ path to power. And what was Osborne doing on June 15, 2016 but an updated version of that same tactic. Darling should have run a mile.
And, of course, there was no emergency budget in 2016, no cuts to benefits and pensions. Just as there was no collapse in house prices. No 500,000 job losses, no departure of Nissan and Airbus, and no immediate mass exodus from the City of London. It was just a nasty electioneering tactic taken directly from the less respectable chapters of the Tory playbook.
And here’s the worst part: it worked. The polls were, frankly, all over the place by now but you can see a move back towards Remain in the final days of the campaign. Certainly Labour Leave activists came upon people saying ‘I’d like us to get out but I need my pension money’.
We will never know for sure but I believe that Osborne managed to move a 60/40 result to the final, infamous 52/48. And the consequences of that were profound. At 60/40 things are calmer; loser’s consent is more easily obtained. But at 52/48 there’s room for hope if you are a passionate Remainer, and room too for conspiracy theories to flourish and find a ready audience. ‘People were conned, people were led astray – look at how I’ve joined the dots!’
That is why you’ll read many articles this week about how Leave lies changed Britain for the worse. Some will contain elements of truth, and I’m not here to defend the big red bus or Farage’s ugly immigration poster. All elections have lies and exaggerations. And sore losers too. But in 2016 the big lies, the ones that really shifted the dial, leaving us much more divided than we needed to be, and about which our media class seem so very incurious – were those told by the Remain campaign.
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