The selection of Vote Leave and Britain Stronger In last week as the official campaign groups for the EU referendum was the final step before the opening of the formal stage of the debate. With this in mind, we are now able to get some better sense of what’s happening and what’s likely to happen in these last 10 weeks.
Polling shows both that the public is fairly finely balanced on the outcome and that they have only limited interest in the subject. Indeed, the lack of clear movement in the polls is partly explained by that lack of engagement. While recent months have seen some growth in interest, that remains a work in progress.
That represents an opportunity for both sides, as more and more voters – those who might have less strongly-held views – are drawn in. But how well are they positioned to exploit this?
Organisationally, Remain appear at first sight to have the better position. The dominance of Stronger In – reflected in it being the only group to submit to the Electoral Commission on the Remain side – means that coordination has been, and will be, relatively simple: all the party political groups have arranged themselves around Stronger In already, so adjustments post-designation will be minimal.
By contrast, the Leave camp remains in a state of some confusion. While Vote Leave secured the official designation, Leave.EU remains a potent actor – despite, or perhaps because of, its perceived proximity to UKIP – and it certainly remains the group with the most successful and extensive membership list, as reflecting in its online presence.
However, this confused situation might more usefully be understood as an embarrassment of riches. While Vote Leave has secured the designation, the other groups will continue to campaign – albeit within much tighter funding limits. While Remain looks like a campaign-ready organisation, Leave will benefit to some extent from the official endorsement of the Electoral Commission, while still having well-organised groups that can take up lines of argument outside of the ‘official’ one. In short, Leave’s multiple parts are an opportunity to hit many different audiences, while Remain’s unity comes at a price of inflexibility.
This also matters at the level of personalities. Here, Leave have the more disparate band, but the relatively moderate positioning of the likes of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove provides something of a counterbalance to the usual suspects, such as Nigel Farage or George Galloway. Indeed, while Remain avoided individuals such as Theresa May or Jeremy Corbyn fighting in the other camp, that has been at the price of their subsequent near-silence in campaigning. As Jon Worth has noted, Remain lacks the ‘attack dogs’ found among Leave’s ranks, which has weakened its capacity to rebut and refute the latter’s claims and agendas.
This reflects a wider issue confronting Remain, namely how to handle the alignment of this issue with David Cameron and the government. As this week’s events around the publication of a pro-membership leaflet by the latter have shown, while Cameron brings a lot to the campaign in terms of profile and leadership, he also risks undermining the cross-party platform he will need to mobilise in order to secure a victory.
Cameron’s exposure to the Panama papers might not hurt him directly in this campaign, but the risk of playing up criticism of his disconnection from ordinary voters’ concerns is not to be ignored, especially when Leave has made so much already of the historic failures of judgement of other Remainers.
This brings us to the question of what themes are likely to dominate the official campaign.
Leave is likely to attempt reinforcing messages about the links of EU membership to a reduced capacity to control immigration, potential threats to the NHS and other public services and about the unfairness of the current arrangement. Their challenge – and biggest weakness – is that they lack an agreed plan of what a new, post-EU role might look like.
Not only are the different groups unable to agree on this, but it will always be necessarily aspirational, given that it will depend very much on what deal can be agreed with the EU during exit negotiations. The clear decision by EU institutions and most member states to stay well out of the referendum debate is thus a double blow to Leave: fewer opportunities to complain about foreigners intervening, plus no cues on what might be agreeable.
Remain’s main arguments have revolved around the economic and material benefits of membership, and the potential costs of exit, rather than the more emotional case. This is understandable, given the lack of tradition in British politics of professing anything more than an instrumental interest in the EU, but it means that the more visceral arguments are to be found on mainly on the other side.
While Remain has been able to marshal a wide array of political, economic and social figures and institutions to back its case, the gut reaction of the public might be one of disdain. Seen in this light, the officially pro-membership stance of the Government is not an unconditional benefit to the Remain camp.
Certainly, there remains a distinct possibility that this referendum will be fought and won (or lost) on questions that have little to do with the EU or with the UK’s membership, something that brings us back to the opening point. Both campaigns have the same imperative – to win the vote – and if that means bringing in arguments from left field then they will be under a lot of pressure so to do. How far they are allowed to do this by the electorate remains to be seen.