13 May 2016

Why the Remain campaign should be worried


This has not been the finest week for the Brexiteers. On Thursday, the premiere of Brexit the Movie was held in London, and while the intentions of the film-maker are perfectly laudable, among the audience of respectable people were more than a smattering of headbangers.

When the former Prime Minister Ted Heath came up on screen, there were shouts of “nonce” and “traitor.” That is outrageous. Ted Heath may have been one of the worst Prime Ministers of the modern era, a leader who mismanaged the economy in a style that gave the 1970s Labour party a serious run for its money in the disastersville stakes. But he served his country with distinction in the Second World War. There is no evidence that he was a “nonce” (British slang for a person who is a sex offender). Heath seems to have been asexual, which was entirely his own business. The UK’s EU referendum campaign is already nasty enough without the importation of Trump-style smears.

But the incident was more evidence that there is a part of the band of Brexiteers that is eccentric, to put it mildly. Indeed, some of the scenes from the “red carpet” outside the cinema were a dream for the Remain campaign. The quixotic outfits worn for the cameras by some of those attending the premiere should disqualify them from going out unaccompanied, never mind from voting.

With brand Brexit already suffering from the perception that too many of its advocates are oddly attired shouty men, who were sent here in a time machine from 1975 and cannot get back, anything that screams “weird” in the mind of moderate, middle-ground undecided voters needs to be avoided by the Outers.

Then, the same evening as the premiere, journalists were astonished to receive from a senior figure official in the Leave campaign an email of exceptional stupidity ranting about ITV and its political editor Robert Peston, following the decision by ITV to feature Nigel Farage (who is not part of the official Leave campaign) in a pre-referendum show alongside the Prime Minister. Few normal people will care about the resulting medialand row, but unsolicited crazy emails sent late in the evening to journalists do not indicate calm-headed competence. The person responsible for the rogue email should at the very least have his mobile phone taken away.

More importantly, the Leavers are also getting hammered badly on the economy. As a government minister put it to me this week: “They have had 25 years to design a plan for how things would work after leaving the EU. And what have they come up with? A complete shambles.”

As in Scotland during the independence referendum of 2014, where the SNP could not answer basic questions about the currency after independence, Leave seems to be relying on proclaiming that everything will somehow turn out fine on trade.

That assessment of Leave’s weaknesses may be harsh or unfair, but then politics is not fair. Perhaps it would never have worked to have a single economic blueprint for life post-Brexit. There are too many different views on the Leave side about what a trading deal with the EU might look like, with some wanting to retain access to the regulatory single market, and even free movement, and others recognising that restoring border control makes that all but an an impossibility. Still, a lot of voters would probably like there to at least be an outline of a plan.

Even so, the Remain campaign looks worried, and it has good cause to be. Not only is their poll lead not substantial enough to be a comfort, even when they are winning on the economy, it is dawning that they have a serious Labour-shaped problem. Remain needs Labour votes to win, indeed there is a case for saying that Labour voters – or former Labour voters – will decide the outcome on June 23rd.

Does the Labour party today look like a get out the vote machine that you would want to find yourself relying on in a tough, close fight in six weeks time? No, it does not.

The Labour party’s death has been predicted before, but this time it may be happening under the catastrophic leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. While in the city-state of London it remains strong, it is finished in Scotland and in Wales it has problems emerging too. In all bar a few of the places where Tony Blair used to win, in swing seats in England, it is nowhere. In the North of England it is under intense assault from UKIP.

And there is the weak point for Remain. Concern about immigration and the implausibility of the government’s claims that Britain has control over its borders (it does not), fused with Corbynite Labour uselessness, create a vulnerability. If it becomes established in the minds of those Labour voters in the north of England that the referendum allows the UK to rejoin successful countries such as Australia, the US, Canada and New Zealand in the perfectly legitimate business of deciding who gets in to the country and who does not, then Remain is in trouble.

In an effort to avoid defeat, Corbyn is making more of his poor speeches. Gordon Brown has also been wheeled out this week, although no-one other than Brown can possibly think that the former Prime Minister who in the 2010 election branded a voter worried about migration as a “bigoted woman” is now the man to motivate Labour voters in this referendum. Who else can Labour deploy to reach those crucial voters it has spent years ignoring on immigration? It is not clear they have anyone of sufficient stature.

The pressure seems to be getting to the Remain campaign. Some of its behaviour in recent weeks has at times bordered on the bizarre. When Boris Johnson made the perfectly sensible observation that the EU had not handled the Ukraine crisis particularly well, he was denounced by over-excited Remainers as a supporter of Vladimir Putin. On social media, Remain is becoming difficult to follow. The valid attempts to “fact check” the claims of the Outers have also descended into crude propaganda. In these small ways in the heat of the campaign, the Establishment side is squandering its great advantage, which is that it supposedly looks and sounds more reasonable than the Brexiteers.

Of course, long-term a Labour recovery under a different leader is possible, although that is years away, maybe even decades. In contrast, the EU referendum is imminent. The time is now. Remain needs Labour votes.

Iain Martin is Editor of CapX