When David Cameron announced the date for the EU Referendum on 20th of February this year, he could hardly have imagined the concept of Brexit being a real possibility. Now, less than two weeks before Britons take to the polling booths, Remain is on the ropes, feeling every effect of Leave’s incessant heavyweight jabs and very much worried of being knocked-out of the European Union. The whole exercise, though, was intended simply to assuage the Euroscepticism within the Tory party, and more widely the country so where did it all go so wrong?
Eurosceptics must have known Boris Johnson announcing his support for leaving the EU on 21st of February, was a massive coup. Johnson is one of the foremost political communicators in Britain. People relate to his comedic, gaff-prone manner and as a result seem to like him which has been clearly evident throughout the past few months. Roaming around the country in his famed ‘battle’ bus, jumping from business to business, speech to speech, Boris has not only engaged but almost as crucially, brought the media circus with him. Few could argue that an event attended by Priti Patel or Chris Grayling would bring little news value, but an appearance by Johnson is very much the opposite. This has helped to maintain the spotlight on Remain and their key policies but more crucially kept Cameron and co lower down the news bulletins.
It is not, however, only Johnson who has impressed. Michael Gove, arguably second to Boris in terms of political weight-class, has also made a number of notable media outings, routinely giving smooth, consummate performances which has led many to speculate whether he, not Johnson, could be a future Tory leader. This was a claim that he has irrefutably dismissed but nevertheless the Justice Secretary won over much of the viewing public and undoubtedly turned mind’s against remaining in the EU in the process.
The less notable figures within the Leave camp have also been impressive under the media glare, not least the duo of Angela Leadsome and Gisele Stuart who appeared alongside Johnson in an ITV debate on Thursday evening. The pair spoke fluently and directly, answering audience questions coherently with passion and not resorting to frustrating personal quips like the opposition.
This has been a theme throughout Remain’s campaign and has led many to become disillusioned and confused by their message. The line-up last night was especially guilty of this with Amber Rudd and Angela Eagle routinely resorting to digs at Johnson’s alleged ambitions for Number 10. Setting this aside, the performances of the three women tasked with asserting the need to stay were less than impressive. Rudd appeared stern and abrasive, Eagle weak and uninspiring. The third member, Nicola Sturgeon, faired better on a personal level but was significantly hampered by her own political agenda.
In all, the Remain’s choice of representatives was poor on the night. None of the triumvirate were able to effectively fight their corner and there is no doubt that the impressive performance of their opponents would have won over significant portions of the electorate. This has been the story throughout their campaign though. Time and time again Cameron and his comrades have failed to connect with the electorate, desperate to crowbar pre-empted sound bites into the debate. With every one of these media outings the momentum shifts further and further to the Eurosceptics. Surely the Stronger In team will be endeavouring to limit the opportunities for that to happen between now and the 23rd.
Undeniably one of Remain’s biggest failings during their campaign has been their dismissive approach to immigration. They have regularly dismissed claims made by Leave as ‘scaremongering’, frivolously asserting their plan for an ‘Australian-style points system’ would only serve to increase immigration whilst on occasions even suggesting that there is no issue with levels as they are. Indeed, their whole approach to the topic has been wholly inadvisable.
Firstly, no matter the opinion of MP’s, immigration is fundamentally an issue that matters to the vast majority of the population. To dismiss it as inconsequential would be to grossly disrespect the public, one of the few things Remain have actually managed to achieve. Secondly, with some devotees saying there is no issue with current migration levels, they are essentially contradicting their own campaign. If immigration levels were fine, why then did David Cameron and the Conservatives promise to cut net migration levels to tens of thousands if Britain remained in the EU?
By stark contrast Leave have militarily reiterated anti-immigration dogma. Recognising that the issue is one of the key components of the debate, Johnson and co have persistently affirmed their policy on free-movement whilst lamenting their rivals for their lack of strategy and the fundamental inability to control borders while remaining in the EU.
Contrastingly, the economy is one of the few areas in which Remain has the upper hand. Crucially, though, they have failed to capitalise on the advantage. Immigration tangibly affects the electorate, people can visibly see and interact with migrants, the jobs they do and the subjective effect they have had upon the country. The economy, though, is far less palpable. Figures are difficult to comprehend at times and as a result the public are less able to understand how the potential of Brexit would impact upon them financially.
This is not to blame the general population, rather the Remain campaign for failing to make the convoluted issue of the economy more comprehendible. George Osborne’s claim that each household would be poorer by £4,300 a year in the case of Brexit was an attempt at doing so, but was roundly criticised as having less basis than the accusation that Britain sends £350 million a week to the EU.
Economists seem to universally agree that a recession would ensue if Britain were to leave the Union. Surely in a time of record-low interest rates in a country still economically recovering from the financial crisis, this would be problematic to say the least. Astonishingly, this has hardly been pushed by unionists. Instead when the issue comes up in opposition, representatives have routinely got into squabbling matches centring on the nature and basis of the figures. One of the many failings of this campaign.
Like immigration control, the regain of sovereignty is one of the fundamental arguments for leaving the EU. Many people agree that Brussels is a bureaucratic monster run incredibly inefficiently and hampered by numerous self-defeating treaties. The main problem though, is the wide-reaching feeling that the whole organisation is undemocratic in nature. Undoubtedly this is a notable issue with firm basis and the Leave campaign have done well to persistently draw attention to this in debate, to which remain has little credible response.
The response they have offered though, has been disastrous. Cameron, Osborne and the like have claimed that leaving the EU would be a shot in the dark, jumping into the unknown land of no automatic access to a free-trading bloc. It almost seems like they are scared of the consequences, not a constructive message to be sending out to an already divided electorate. Rightly or wrongly this goes against the very nature of the British people. The days of ‘glorious isolationism’ may have passed but to say that the fifth largest economy in the world would not be able to survive alone, almost presents a challenge to the general public.
All in all, it has been a terrible campaign for Remain. They have lost on numerous fronts and despite polls suggesting the majority of people started out with the preference of staying inside the EU, some are now suggesting that Leave has taken the lead. It seems extraordinary that this is essentially the same group of people who led the Tories to a majority government at the last election despite there being widespread agreement that a second consecutive coalition was the most likely outcome. Now the inefficacy of the same people could be a core reason for Britain leaving the EU and the first party coup for nearly three decades. Maybe they can pull it round but whatever the result, David Cameron will seriously wonder how he let his campaign fail on so many issues.