Category Archives: EU referendum

16 take-aways from the referendum campaign


Turn-out looks as if it has been extraordinarily high for this referendum, not that that is making it any easier to predict.  I did read one analysis which suggested that a very high turnout (above 75%) would favour Leave, since it meant all the customarily non-voting anti-establishment types had decided to turn up and vote to leave.  But who knows?  Another few hours and the apparent indecision of Britain will have finally become a decision, and one which about half of us will apparently hate.

Meanwhile, before the reality offers us the chance for reams of further comment, here are my take-aways from the campaign just concluded.

1.     The Leave campaign has actually been a blinder.  It was consistently under-estimated at the start – possibly part of its deliberate strategy – with rumours of persistent infighting, rivalry between the Johnson/Gove and Farage outfits, and the lack of a clear vision of Britain after Brexit.  Nevertheless, they learned some core messages of political campaigning first honed in 1930s Germany.  They found a scapegoat class and caricatured it to the point of irrational hatred.  They lied often and glibly, and maintained their lies – especially the favoured one about £350 million a week going to Brussels.  Their lead figure was consistently inconsistent when comparing his views of the campaign with his views from before the campaign.  And they had the biggest media hitters of the lot firmly on side – the best-selling tabloid press.

2.     Which brings me to the second point.  The largely foreign owned, right-wing tabloids have never been known as models of rational argument and balanced reporting, but they’ve outdone themselves this time.  While the Remain campaign has had to rely on the more nuanced and considered support of the Guardian and some columnists in the Times and Independent, the Mail, Express and Sun – and the Telegraph, which sits uneasily between tabloid and quality press – have gone all out for the Leave campaign.  By relentlessly placing immigration on their front pages more or less consistently in the run-up to today’s vote, they have ensured that Leave’s key attraction has reached millions of readers.  That has been a great coup – albeit one that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth – for the Leave campaign.

3.     The Remain campaign over-dosed on Project Fear and then found it difficult to row back.  They forgot that most of their supporters and likely allies amongst undecided voters would respond more warmly to a less strident campaign.  George Osborne’s future budget speech was a spectacular mis-fire.  It is also possible that David Cameron would have benefitted if he had taken a less prominent role and allowed others to head up the Remain campaign.  This might in particular have lessened the vitriolic antagonism he has aroused amongst his opponents in the Tory party.

4.     Too much of the British electorate is irrational and uninterested in boring things like facts.  It’s why Boris Johnson, a mendacious and slippery political performer, still scores so well.  He’s funny, you see.

5.     Broadcasters focus too much on personalities.  This feeds the media strategies of the campaigns and then people complain about a lack of substantive debate as the vicious cycle carries on downwards.

6.     Referendums are fundamentally a bad thing.  There’s a reason why we have a parliamentary system, not the least of which is that most voters genuinely can’t be arsed to think about political questions in anything other than headlines and images.  The political class needs to rediscover some respect for itself and its vocation and stop passing everything on to the public at large.

7.     Celebrities, with very few exceptions, encourage derision for the cause they support.  They should shut up.  Unless they’re David Beckham or Sheila Hancock.

8.     The Labour Party is in a serious mess.  Jeremy Corbyn has shown that he has no idea how to fight a national campaign, and has failed to provide any sort of useful leadership for his party on the most significant issue the country has debated in over a generation.  Worse, most of his MPs know this but can’t do anything about it because they took their eye off their own party and allowed it to be taken over by hard-line Corbynistas.  If Jezza hangs up his leadership chops before the next election then it’s a racing certainty that John McDonnell will take over.  Time for Labour MPs to start re-reading their histories of the SDP.

9.     The Tories hate David Cameron.  They hate him because he tried to modernise their party.  They hate him even more for the fact that he almost succeeded and showed that it was an election winning strategy.  They hate him because he doesn’t really like them.  They hate him because he’s not Margaret Thatcher and doesn’t invoke her name in every speech.  They hate him because he’s a metropolitan liberal.  They hate him because of gay marriage.  And boy, do they really hate him over Europe.  They could tolerate him while he kept up an air of mild scepticism towards Europe, but now the mask is off and they will never forgive his leadership of the Remain campaign.  Win or lose tomorrow, he and his successors are eventually toast as far as many Tory members are concerned.

10. Despite 9 above, the Tory party is actually much more united than the campaign suggests.  Whatever the referendum result they will soon be led by a right-of-centre populist Leave supporter – probably Johnson, maybe Gove.  Theresa May won’t beat either of them and the rump of the once proud Tory One Nation tradition will remain largely unheard – for they are small in number and low in status.  Under a new rightist leader the party members, and the majority if not all of the MPs, will quickly rally round.  There is no tradition of the Tory left making serious trouble for right-wing leaders, and it will be astonishing how quickly this poison is drawn once the Cameroons are out.  Amazingly, they can probably even look forward to another election victory thanks to 8 above.

11. The Liberal Democrats are still in shock over their 2015 defeat.  They have failed to make any real impact in this campaign despite being a homogenously pro-European party.  They have failed too to pick up any advantage from the Tory civil war or the Labour party’s contagious apathy.  If there is any time for a strong centrist and internationalist voice to emerge in British politics it is now, but the Liberal Democrats have shown they aren’t it. 

12. Everyone on twitter is far more knowledgeable than experts who have studied political issues for decades or politicians who have made it their vocation to pursue them.

13. It is now a ritual humiliation that prime ministers must go through, after a long and dedicated career in public service, to be lambasted by air-headed television audience members who want their 5 minutes of fame for a laborious and not very good insult, and to smile wanly throughout as if it really was a very good point.  British political leaders will have regained their self-respect when they have a go back.

14. David Dimbleby should retire.  He interrupts too often and doesn’t like anyone to finish an answer if it means having to explain ideas.

15. Jo Cox was a tragedy and a phenomenon.  A tragedy that no-one can gainsay.  A phenomenon in that a new MP with just a year of work behind her has been garlanded with the praise and honours usually reserved for statesmen or women of many years service, and was certainly denied those old warhorses, also murdered, Ian Gow and Airey Neave.  Whether the tragedy of her killing justified the Dianification of her remembrance is a moot point too soon to be debated.  That politics looked as if it had become more dangerous certainly seemed to be the case. 

16. My final take-away is unhappily the most melancholy.  We really are a divided nation.  The metropolitan city-scapes and the left-behind rural hinterland no longer inhabit the same polity.  There is little common understanding of each other’s strengths and weaknesses.  While half the country continues to look outwards and seek the rewards of its ongoing prosperity, the other half continues to decline economically and put up walls against the encroachments on what remains of its lifestyle.  In or out, that dichotomy isn’t going away.

Gove’s Star Ever Rising

If Boris Johnson has had a pretty mediocre - even poor - Brexit campaign, then the quiet man of the Leave team has had a great one.

Johnson remains popular with Tory grassroots and amongst the general public, who persist - contrary to all the evidence - in seeing him as the most trustworthy politician when it comes to speaking about the EU.

Gove, however, has severed his links with Cameron and the party modernisers, carved out a new furrow and become the Leave campaign's most potent debater.  While Leave supporters were collectively swooning over the great man's performance in the Question Timed debate yesterday - possibly because they've rarely heard one of their own side string words together with fluency and meaning, even if the substance was still being held at the door - even commentators who are not amongst Mr. Gove's natural support base were conceding that he'd done a good job.  Three of the Guardian's writers were inspired by Mr. Gove to produce delightfully crafted assessments.

Michael Gove has also seen a surge of support from grassroots Tories who would like him to be their leader.  The Conservative Home survey in June showed that he remained the firm favourite.  Discount his repeated protestations that he isn't fit to be leader - given sufficient support and a few nudges from senior colleagues and I'm sure Mr. Gove will overcome his reluctance to stand - and the former friend of Dave may be the man charged with negotiating our departure from the EU as Prime Minister.

It's possibly at that point that he might wish he had been a little more thorough on the detail of life after the EU.

Can you find rational arguments about the EU?

When even respected MPs change their minds on the EU debate it might be fair to ask what chance the rest of us have in understanding the issues and coming to a definitive conclusion. 

To be fair, Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP who has changed her mind from supporting "Leave" to supporting "Remain" has done so largely on account of her unwillingness to support a campaign that bases one of its core arguments on a lie.  Their widely publicised claim that leaving the EU would save £350 million a week has been derided in most quarters as at best misleading, and now Dr. Wollaston has determined that to support such an erroneous campaign would clearly be wrong.

The claims and counter-claims about the money we could save if we left the EU, or the immigration problems that could be solved if we left the EU, are responsible for many people suggesting that it is impossible to define a rational argument about it.  And yet, if you bother to spend just a small amount of your time for research about what everyone agrees is a crucially important vote, you can scratch beneath the rhetoric and identify some clear points.

One person who has done just this is a guy called Nick Carter-Lando, who has taken the time to analyse the statistical claims being made about immigration and the economy, and posted on his facebook page a piece that is remarkably clear and rationally presented.  I'd commend anyone to go and read the whole thing - it isn't too long, given the amount of material he is trying to cover. 

Amongst some of Mr. Carter-Lando's key conclusions include the point that immigration, based on the highest estimates, makes a difference of at most 2.8% (that's 1 in 35 people) over ten years; and that removing our net contribution might indeed save us £8.5bn a year, but that such a sum (spent several times over by Leave campaigners in their rhetoric) is a drop in the ocean of, for example, the NHS budget of £116.4bn a year.

We have been ill-served by much of the tabloid press in this campaign, most of it firmly in the Brexit camp and most of it majoring on scare stories about immigration.  But we have always known that our tabloid press is sensationalist, scandal-mongering and only tenuously linked to the truth.  It is actually up to us as individuals to be trying to make our own rational case for leaving or staying in the EU.  The weight of expert evidence so derided by Michael Gove (who needed to compensate for the complete lack of any expert evidence for his own case) does point overwhelmingly towards a Remain vote as the best option.  But rationality may yet play only a small part in the referendum outcome.

Gove v Cameron

On the surface Michael Gove had a better run at the EU debate than his boss, David Cameron did last night.  Gove came across as an impressive debater able to turn the tables on questioners and not short of the striking phrase (the best one being that the greatest symbol of British democracy is the removal van).

But Michael Gove had an easier audience, which was probably vetted to make sure no teachers attended.  Gove's audience struggled for killer questions and were allowed to ask rather tendentiously linked ones relating to the election fraud case and his own leadership ambitions.  No such cosiness was extended to David Cameron, but as has been pointed out by several commentators, the difference here is that Cameron was always going to present a better target for show-casing audience members looking for their 5 minutes of fame for the simple reason that he is the Prime Minister. 

What about the substance?  Cameron was badly tripped up at the start with the question on immigration, for which he has his own careless pledge to blame, but after that he maintained a more substantive case than the largely grandiloquent but empty Gove.  When asked for specifics about what life will be like if we leave the EU he tellingly chose to start with "hope".  Hope is nice, but it's very unspecific.  Which is the problem with the Leave case that Gove couldn't easily finesse, for all his skill as a debater - it is based on pure speculation, and speculation moreover which flies in the face of most expert testimony.  That was his other serious area of weakness.  In his exchange with Faisal Islam Gove had to admit by default that no expert testimony was going his way, to the extent that he tried to make a joke of it by suggesting we'd all had enough of experts anyway.

This debate will have done Michael Gove a lot of good amongst the Tory grassroots, who are increasingly desperate to get rid of their election-winning leader and replace him with a more ideologically pure, but probably less electorally potent model.  The triumphant crowing of the Leave campaign in the wake of tonight's debate also suggest they believe they have a star in Gove, though given their other spokespeople the bar is not set high.  I suspect the Leavers will push Gove more to the fore, but it will become increasingly difficult for a man who decried the Prime Minister as delivering up a depressing and erroneous vision last night to continue serving in his cabinet after the referendum.

Cameron is undone by a broken pledge in his Sky "debate"

One of the worst aspects of modern day political leadership must surely be the need to go and be ritually humiliated by television debate audiences.  You have to give a wan little smile at the voluble English Literature student who spends ages asking her incoherent and roundabout question, only to finish her inestimable waffle with an accusation that you are the terrible waffler.  You have to listen to the grumpy man who wants to know why you need trade agreements when you've got amazon and ebay.  People who have read a couple of Express front pages suddenly become the interlocutary experts you have to politely respond to.  Lose your rag and you become vilified forever.  Stand there and respond with reason, to often unreasoned questions, and you just look like a wimp and everyone can proclaim that the wonderfully well informed audience sorted you out.  It's an unwelcome gig, but it's a cost of democratic leadership.

David Cameron is, as one commentator has put it this morning, an old trouper in this regard and he kept his cool while under fire from the audience at last night's Sky News debate, responding passionately yet reasonably, and staying on what was a relatively clear message throughout.  Whatever you say about Cameron's aloofness, his rarefied upbringing or his isolation from the lifestyles of most ordinary people, you have to respect the fact that he does these amongst the people things well.  He engages, I don't think he patronises, and he really does try and explain his stances.  Most of us would lose it early on, if we even had the patience to go through with such a process.

Where Cameron was genuinely on the ropes, however, was at the beginning, at the hands of an experienced political observer and interviewer, Sky's Faisal Islam.  Still relatively new to his position as Sky's political editor, there seems to be a general agreement that he emerged with his reputation enhanced.  Tenacious, appropriately aggressive and with a nice ability to use humour to puncture his subject, he looks as if he might be able to fill a Paxman-esque void in political interviewing (though still behind the current past master, Andrew Neill).

It was Islam's question about immigration, and specifically Cameron's oft-quoted pledge on limiting immigration, that gave the Prime Minister the most trouble.  Not surprisingly either.  It's a pledge he hasn't met, and can't meet.  Whatever other points I might want to disregard from the shrill and constantly whinging Leave campaign, the one about his pledge undermining trust in politicians hits home.

Pledge breaking is the worst thing a politician can do, which is why it is concerning that they seem so free with making them.  Cameron's old coalition buddy Nick Clegg fell the same way with his broken pledge on tuition fees.  I'm surprised Cameron got caught by this.  Feeling pressurised from the right, worried about the inroads made by immigration-hating UKIP, he allowed himself to appease their cries with an impossible pledge.  Now he's paying the price, and it's a pity because in many ways Cameron is a reasonable man, a pragmatic political leader and a man who can give politics a sheen of authoritative respectability.  An ill thought out pledge, a short-term response to a difficult and intractable problem, has undone him.

David Cameron tried to present an honest case about continuing membership of the EU to his studio audience last night.  The easy accusation of a non-listening young audience member that he was "waffling" wasn't actually true.  The pity of it was that he hasn't been as honest about the EU and about wider problems - notably immigration - before.  Truly, politicians who frame their dialogue in the transient window of 24 hour news and social media find that ignoring the long view can have dire consequences.