David Herdson says the EU Referendum campaign could already be over with REMAIN the victors

David Herdson says the EU Referendum campaign could already be over with REMAIN the victors


What LEAVE has to do now if it is to have any chance

The EU referendum campaign may well already be over with Remain having won. In many ways, that shouldn’t be the case. Europe hardly presents a picture of radiant success on a practical level, while the idea of a common European home is laughable when states are re-erecting borders against each other. A troubled economy, social disharmony and a dysfunctional political system – what more could a Eurosceptic want to make the case for Leave?

A leader: that’s what. In theory, referendum campaigns are not elections. The public are voting for or against a proposition rather than choosing between individuals and parties, so who supports which side shouldn’t make a difference. In practice, who makes the case, and how they make it matters enormously. And at the moment, Leave have a very big problem.

The latest recruit to their cause this week (seemingly, he still left himself some wriggle room), was Chris Grayling, the Leader of the House. While a relatively senior cabinet member, he is not the kind of person to send patriotic blood coursing through British veins. Nor are the other Tory politicians to have rallied that that standard, a group which for the moment consists mostly of the usual suspects of backbenchers and ex-ministers from the 1980s and 90s.

    In one way, the obvious candidate to lead Leave is Nigel Farage, the head of the party set up for that very purpose. Yet that is precisely why he shouldn’t head the referendum: the votes of Ukip’s supporters are already in the bag and it’s unlikely that Farage has the style and political attributes to build the broad coalition any successful referendum campaign needs to win.

And that’s the point that should be taken from the AV referendum. In that, Yes spent most of its time talking to itself and went out of its way to exclude or at least sideline Conservatives, Ukip activists and even some Lib Dems like Nick Clegg. By contrast, No put together an effective partnership between the majority of the Conservatives and no small number of Labour heavyweights.

Against that, some might cite the example of the Scottish referendum, where Yes – ably and dynamically led by Alex Salmond – lost to No, which was notionally but uninspiringly led by Alistair Darling. But to cite the outcome without the context misses the point. True, No did win despite their less focussed and less well led campaign, but they did so only because they began the contest with a massive lead and a broader base. Yes made all the running; it just didn’t happen to be enough.

So if it’s not Farage, then who? The person Leave would really like to snare is Boris Johnson, who has twice proven his crossover appeal beyond the Conservative base in the mayoral contests. He remains popular, and not just in London. A poll this week showed as many people backing him in response to the question “who would most encourage you to vote for the Conservatives” as Theresa May and George Osborne put together. But Boris’ flirting with Leave without committing himself isn’t doing him any favours. It all looks a bit low-politics and a bit tactical.

In an ideal world, the best person to head up Leave would be a Labour or Lib Dem; someone who could reach out well beyond the core vote. The problem is that there simply isn’t anyone of sufficient calibre to do it. We should also write off the possibility of a non-politician. While superficially attractive, celebrity backers tend not to have the skills necessary and can easily come across as hectoring. Besides, politicians are the professionals when it comes to politics; in what other role would you actively choose to forego a professional in favour of an untrained enthusiast?

So who else? The aforementioned Theresa May has been touted and would be a very good catch (not least because there are so few high-profile women in the debate, never mind in Leave), but she too seems uncommitted. Other cabinet ministers who might campaign that way – IDS, Javid, Hunt – are all capable politicians but lack spark.

And yet there are perhaps only five months to go. The PM will no doubt sell what he returns from Brussels with as an acceptable new settlement and he’ll have backing from Remain from Labour, Lib Dems and a fair-sized portion of the Conservatives. That’s a huge structural advantage. Against which, Leave have no alternative vision, no single structure, no leader and a lot of infighting. Unless they can resolve those problems, and soon, they’ll stand no chance.

David Herdson

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