The initiative swings back to Remain
But for Tony Marlowâ€™s blazer, Michael Portillo might have ended up prime minister rather than a rail-hopping TV presenter. To have done so, he needed John Redwood to do sufficiently well in the first round of the Conservative Party leadership election against John Major. Redwood, however, never really recovered from his initial press conference when he â€œwas lost in a mass of eccentric jackets and lime-green silkâ€, as Major put it. That one press conference â€œdid more to send wavering backbenchers into my camp than several daysâ€™ hard campaigningâ€. In the end, Major received three votes more than the target he set himself. Had Major fallen short, the door would have opened to Portillo.
Itâ€™s a good example of the butterfly effect in action. Itâ€™s also a reminder of how important it is to get the tone right when the course of events is in a maximum state of flux. Thatâ€™s why the Grassroots Out event for the Leaver campaign that chose to make George Galloway its star surprise speaker blundered so badly. Like those Tory MP in 1995, todayâ€™s wavering politicians must be wondering whether this is a crowd to cosy up to.
Chief among those undecideds is Boris, mayor of London, MP for Uxbridge & South Ruislip and man of ambition. Leave would love to draft him to their campaign which at the moment lacks star quality, charisma and heavyweights. Chris Grayling, Michael Gove and IDS are serious politicians but hardly popular or colourful ones. Which is why placing Galloway centre-stage was such an error: not only will it inhibit those who might not want to appear alongside him but it places a question mark against the judgement of the whole campaign.
It is of course true that most people wonâ€™t have noticed Gallowayâ€™s appearance tonight. Itâ€™s also true that Galloway can speak to a demographic that people like Farage, IDS or even Boris canâ€™t. Both arguments miss the point.
In the first case, the election isnâ€™t being fought now but the teams are being picked. Referendums are usually won by the side with the most popular leading figures. That wasnâ€™t the case with the Scottish referendum but there Yes did make large gains during the campaign, consistent with the rule; they just werenâ€™t large enough. With the EU vote starting off near enough level pegging, that exception doesnâ€™t apply. Unless Leave can recruit a better team it will struggle to attract the centre and centre-left.
On the second point, Leave is already overloaded with marmite politicians such as Gove and IDS. Those two might help with the thinking centre-right but are anathema to many others. Galloway is even worse and could easily repel some of those that the cabinet ministers attract. The best they can do is try to hide him away, though as he intends to stand for London mayor in May, that may be easier said than done.
As for the deal itself, the political question is whether thereâ€™s enough in it to enable politicians and activists to go out with conviction. On that score, I suspect it is.
Leave will no doubt try to pick holes in it, arguing that itâ€™s not a treaty so isnâ€™t legally binding and, minor benefit changes aside, is largely a statement of intent that the ECJ can and probably will overrule. There may be some truth to some of that but the statement of intent of itself should not be ignored: having reached agreement this week, it ought to be entirely possible to incorporate the clauses into treaty form at the next opportunity. Every state is signed up.
Again though, thatâ€™s detail for those who care about these things. The referendum will be won and lost far more on impressions and gut feeling. The quality of each sideâ€™s campaign will undoubtedly influence that but even more so, so will who is making it. On that score, for the first time in a while, not only did Remain had much the better of it yesterday but they can feel more confident about the campaign ahead.