Andrew Grice / Oct 2015
Only five months after a long general election campaign ended, another marathon has begun in the UK. Tabloid newspapers call it “the Battle for Britain,” as the rival camps who want to remain in or leave the EU engage in daily combat, briefings, counter-briefings, rebuttal and pre-buttal.
It is a fight without an end date, since we do not know when the in/out referendum promised by David Cameron will be held, only that it will take place before the end of 2017. Until recently, UK Cabinet ministers had hoped the Prime Minister would win enough concessions at the European Council meeting in December to call the referendum in June next year, or September at the latest. But progress has been slow, and some ministers now believe Mr Cameron might get a better EU deal by “playing it long” and delaying the public vote until 2017. But with German and French elections taking place then, such a strategy would not be without risks.
The In and Out campaigns are unlikely to maintain the frenetic pace they set around their respective launches this month – not least because the public will not tune in until the race’s last lap. And until we know the detail of Mr Cameron’s reform package, the two sides are mostly rehearsing their lines for the real battle.
Inevitably, the economic benefits EU membership loomed large in their early skirmishes. A slick launch video by Vote Leave, the main cross-party Out group, showed sterling notes flying away from a hospital to illustrate the £350 million a week that UK taxpayers pay to Brussels (a rather misleading gross figure, which does not take account of the UK rebate; regional aid grants and the CAP). The In crowd, Britain Stronger in the EU, hit back with a claim that the net contribution is only £340 per household per year, and that EU membership is worth £3,000 a year to a typical family through jobs, investment, trade and lower prices.
Both sides tried to address their weaknesses. The Out camp knows that, while many Britons have little love for the EU, they may fear that withdrawal would be a “leap in the dark.” It argues that leaving is “safer” than handing more money and power to Brussels every year. Referendums in Britain tend to support the status quo, so those who want to leave need to show that the country could have a stable, secure future outside the EU.
Vote Leave, which also uses the slogan “take control,” tries to act as an insurgent force against an In campaign it portrays as an establishment which is trotting out the failed Foreign Office mantra since the 1956 Suez crisis. Having the support of the three living former prime ministers – Sir John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown—would once have been a big asset to the In camp. But the anti-politicians mood meant they were nowhere to be seen at the launch of Britain Stronger in Europe. The front man was Lord (Stuart) Rose, the former Marks & Spencer chief executive, who portrayed continuing membership as the patriotic choice that would give the UK more clout on the world stage. In campaigners admit they need to show the passion and energy of the Outers and must not look like a cosy club of “yesterday’s men.” Nor can they rely on scare tactics about lost jobs, investment and trade if Britain were to quit the EU. Such techniques backfired in last year’s referendum on Scottish independence.
The anti-politics as usual atmosphere, illustrated by the rise of the Scottish National Party and Ukip and Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader, makes the referendum wide open. About 30 per cent of people are undecided.
The private fear in the In camp is that, however strong its arguments, the normal rules no longer apply. Some EU diplomats tell their UK counterparts that the British people would not be so “mad” as to walk out of the EU. But UK officials are not bluffing when they reply that “Brexit” could happen. They are right.