Outcome of the EU referendum will determine whether Cameron and Osborne can restore the reputational damage inflicted by Iain Duncan Smith. For those undecided, the campaigns must convince individuals of what’s at stake for their economic security, writes Sir Stephen Wall.
Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson will be remembered for “a week is a long time in politics” and the last week has turned out to be a long and politically costly one for David Cameron and George Osborne. Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation, whatever the official explanation, highlights the toxic nature of the EU referendum on relationships within the Conservative Party. Undoubtedly, it has damaged the Conservatives in the short-term. History shows that voters are switched off by supporting a party divided. The longer-term impact will ultimately be determined by what Britain decides on June 23rd. A vote to remain will give Cameron/Osborne an opportunity to restore any reputational damage. Brexit, on the other hand, raises the question about their political futures.
When it comes to the June EU referendum, fear of the devil we don’t know (Brexit) will be on the Prime Minister’s side. On the side of Brexit campaigners will be turnout (one of the PM’s biggest fears), migration, the perception of the EU in disarray over refugees, the hostility of Labour-leaning voters, the desire to give the Government a kicking and the sense that prevailed in a previous Irish referendum on an EU treaty: “if you don’t know, vote no”.
There are motivated groups (probably close to 30%) at either end of the EU argument. In the middle, are those who are torn between head and heart and those who are disengaged. Older voters tend to vote and contain more of those who are likely to vote for Brexit. Younger voters tend to be more likely to support staying in but are less likely to vote. These are the groups that both sides are targeting. The opinion polls put both sides pretty much neck and neck. The bookies are favouring the Remain side. There are likely to be regional variations with Scotland, Wales and London likely to vote ‘Remain’, the south east marginal and much of the rest of England (including traditional Labour heartlands) sceptical. Former Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, is leading the Labour In group and they are campaigning on doorsteps in Labour constituencies. Will Labour voters think it more important to vote to remain in the EU than to give the Government a bloody nose by staying at home or voting to leave? The European Union is one of a number of Western institutions that Jeremy Corbyn has spent much of his political life disliking. Strong support for the EU in the Parliamentary Labour Party has obliged him to support continued membership but he will not play much useful part in campaigning.
When the official referendum period starts in mid-April the Electoral Commission will have designated two lead campaign group: one for Remain and one for Leave. On the Remain side, Britain Stronger in Europe will be the lead organisation. It is chaired by Stuart Rose and led by Will Straw, son of Jack. It has the advantage of being unchallenged for the role but has not been notably fast or sure footed off the starting blocks.
On the Leave side, the front-running organisation is Vote Leave, funded by City millionaire Peter Cruddas, Labour donor John Mills and UKIP donor, Stuart Wheeler. This group is supported by the prominent opponents of EU membership from within the Conservative Party, notably Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Chris Grayling and Iain Duncan-Smith. It is also supported by UKIP’s only MP, the ex-Tory Douglas Carswell.
Nigel Farage, on the other hand, set up Leave EU and argues that Vote Leave is too London/establishment oriented to appeal to ordinary voters. His own organisation (Leave EU) is now working alongside Grassroots Out. This coalition includes Labour MP Kate Hoey and Conservative David Davis, as well as George Galloway. There is not much sign of compromise between the rival Leave organisations. Designation as the lead campaign organisation is critical for access to public funding and broadcasting time.
The last six weeks before 23 June (i.e. after the local and Scottish elections on 5 May) will see a concentrated barrage of firepower from both sides, with the Prime Minister undoubtedly the main campaigner on the Remain side. Former Prime Ministers Major, Blair and Brown are also all supporters of Remain.
David Cameron has given a one word answer to the question: “Will you resign if the country votes to leave?”. He had no choice but to answer “No”. But every political commentator I talk to believes that, in the event of a vote to leave, David Cameron would have to resign immediately. Boris Johnson, whose views on the EU are firmly rooted in the principle of self-interest, of course calculates that his chances of leading the Conservative Party are best served by supporting the Leave argument, either in a leadership election in the immediate aftermath of a vote to come out, or a couple of years down the track, when the EU-sceptical Tory faithful inside and outside Parliament will reward him for his stance.
Turmoil in the Conservative Party would be an additional factor in fuelling nervous reaction in money markets in the wake of a vote to leave. The crucial task in the campaign is to enable people to make a choice which is informed by knowing what is at stake for their economic security. The role of businesses in making that assessment and informing those who work for them is vital.