Andrew Grice / May 2016
David Cameron, UK prime minister. Photo: European Union
Twelve months on from the British general election, leaders of the campaign to keep the UK in the EU hope desperately that history is repeating itself.
Before the election, the opinion polls were neck and neck, just as they are today ahead of the 23 June referendum on EU membership. But the Conservatives had a big lead over Labour on economic competence. That, and David Cameron enjoying better ratings as best prime minister than the Labour leader Ed Miliband, proved more reliable guides to the outcome than party ratings pointing to a hung parliament. The Tories won an unexpected overall majority.
The ratings for leaders of the Remain and Leave camps are not in Cameron’s favour. Boris Johnson, the former Mayor of London and most prominent figure in Vote Leave, is trusted by twice as many people as the Prime Minister to tell the truth on Europe, according to pollsters ComRes.
But Britain Stronger in Europe (BSE), the official In campaign, is confident its lead on the economy is widening after an almost daily barrage of warnings from the Government, Bank of England, CBI, Institute for Fiscal Studies, IMF, OECD and foreign leaders including Barack Obama, that Brexit would damage the UK economy. The Leave camp has been pummelled, and hampered by its inability to map out a clear vision of life after Brexit –notably, the UK's trading relationship with its former EU partners.
“It’s the economy, stupid”, the mantra of James Carville, Bill Clinton’s strategist in the 1992 Presidential election, was always going to be the In camp's favourite tune. The Leavers knew it, but have still been shaken by the ferocity and intensity of the attack. Their best answer has been to portray the battle as a “David versus Goliath” struggle in which the insurgent Outers are up against a conspiracy of the world’s governing elite, some of whose organisations are funded by the EU.
Winning the economic battle has raised hopes of victory in the In camp. While online polls tend to show a knife edge vote, telephone surveys usually give the Remainers a lead of several percentage points. This is thought to be due to harder to reach voters being more likely to back staying in the EU.
Yet there is no feeling of complacency in Downing Street or at BSE. They know their strong campaign on the economy is not necessarily going to deliver a knockout blow.
The referendum is not going to be decided by a single issue because the Outers have changed tack significantly. Before the referendum begun, leading figures in Vote Leave told me they would not play the immigration card as that would appeal mainly to people who had already decided to vote to quit the EU, and would alienate liberal-minded undecided voters.
Clashes over immigration –and the Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s role—led to the formation of two rival Out campaigns – the Conservative-dominated Vote Leave, which won designation as the official Out campaign and Grassroots Out (GO), which is all-party but Ukip-led.
But in a major shift, Vote Leave has decided that going for broke on immigration provides its only hope of neutralising the Remain camp’s lead on the economy. It is crude, but it is working, and keeping the Outers in the game.
So the EU’s weak response to the migration crisis may unwittingly help to create another crisis – Brexit. Although the deal with Turkey has cut the number of refugees heading to the Greek islands in boats, the Libya to Italy route has not been blocked and that features prominently in UK news bulletins.
The Out camp has skilfully made immigration a referendum issue by highlighting the pressures it puts on the NHS, schools and housing. Migration has probably also helped the Outers secure a draw on the issue of national security, despite warnings by past and present Nato and US defence and intelligence chiefs that the EU plays an important role.
The polls suggest that people who intend to vote to leave regard immigration as the most important issue, while remainers cite the economy. The In campaign believes that for the crucial “don’t knows,” the economy matters most. But some polls suggest that warnings about higher immigration could tip some of them into the Out column, so the Leave campaign is determined to keep the issue in the headlines.
That explains the fear stalking some in the Remain camp: that they could win the economic argument and yet still lose the referendum.