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by Andrew Whitaker
21 June 2016
Battle for hearts and minds in this week's EU referendum

Battle for hearts and minds in this week's EU referendum

With some of the biggest names in politics trading blows in the closing stages of the EU referendum campaign, it’s been suggested that people are fed up with the Boris vs Cameron charade and want a real reason to vote either Remain or Leave.

But what will really capture the votes of the undecideds come Thursday and who will swing the result, one way or another?         

There are now just days to go until the In-Out EU referendum when UK voters will channel the words of the iconic punk band, The Clash, and ask themselves, “should I stay or should I go?”

The campaign has only really registered on the Richter scale in the aftermath of May’s election for the UK’s devolved parliaments, assemblies, mayoral posts and municipal authorities.

But a defining feature of a campaign, that has come nowhere near the 2014 Scottish independence referendum in terms of capturing the public mood for good or ill, has been the way personalities have, to a large extent, defined the unfolding story.


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The Boris vs Cameron saga that has played out since the early stages of the campaign, is reminiscent of a story that could quite easily have been penned by the novelist and one-time Tory favourite, Jeffrey Archer.

A tale of two old Etonian-educated friends, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, who would become close allies after being part of the same House of Commons intake in 2001, both enjoying their own meteoric rises before becoming sworn enemies after a dramatic parting of the ways, is straight out of an Archer novel.

Likewise, the re-emergence of Gordon Brown onto the campaign stage for a last-ditch intervention, along similar lines to his eve-of-independence speech in September 2014, is reminiscent of the Rocky boxing movie franchise, with the ageing pugilist, played by Sylvester Stallone, finding a fresh reason to return to the ring for one supposed last bout.    

What’s been striking is the way Nigel Farage, who kickstarted the demand for a EU referendum in the first place, has effectively been forced to play second fiddle to Tory Brexit leaders such as Johnson. 

Meanwhile, the SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon, has successfully managed to present a Remain case to the UK electorate as a whole, most notably during TV debates, without making any sort of common cause with pro-EU Tories and while firmly rejecting any claims that she has taken up a contradictory position to her previous efforts in the Scottish referendum to take Scotland out of the UK but remain within the EU.

So much of the commentary of the EU campaign has focused on what the consequences will be for the Tory party and Cameron in particular, who is now facing the very real prospect that his premiership will be defined by internal squabbles over Europe.

Of course, no political journalist can or should ignore a story about the UK’s governing party being gripped by internecine fighting over a particular flashpoint, Europe in this case – an issue which all sense and reason appears to disappear from some Tory heads when the topic arises.

Such internal bloodletting was a big story during John Major’s premiership, from 1990 to 1997, with the then PM facing so many internal rebellions over further European integration that he was even forced to threaten his own party with a fresh general election to bring errant MPs into line, just a year after his shock decisive 1992 defeat of Neil Kinnock’s Labour Party.

But what makes Cameron’s difficulties so newsworthy is the extent of the schism he faces, which is on a far grander scale than that of the Major years.

True, Major was moved to refer to a number of his own cabinet as “bastards” over Europe and there were party grandees, like Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit, stoking the tensions, but for the most part, rebellions were confined to a relatively small group of MPs, renowned for their hard-line right-wing views.                        

Just think of the pictures associated with the leadership challenge Major faced from the then Welsh Secretary, John Redwood, back in summer 1995, when MPs such as Teresa Gorman and Tony Marlow, who were never exactly mainstream, were photographed at a Redwood campaign launch looking like they were baying for the PM’s blood.

Cameron, by contrast, has been publicly pitched against party heavyweights like the last London mayor Johnson, his own Justice Secretary Michael Gove as well as former Tory leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who until recently served as Work and Pensions Secretary in Cameron’s cabinet.

Such internal blue-on-blue discord makes for great theatre, particularly given the prospect of reprisals in the aftermath of the referendum result but does it make for good and sound debate?

Suggestions that Cameron, in the event of a vote to Remain will embark on a cull of Eurosceptic cabinet members in a purge that makes Harold Macmillan’s ‘night of the long knives’ look like a minor shuffling of the pack, means that it’s inevitable that endless souped-up commentary about personalities will loom large in the referendum campaign and its aftermath.

The same is true of the various permutations of a Brexit, with reports suggesting Cameron is highly likely to come under pressure to hasten his already announced exit from 10 Downing Street, along similar lines to Tony Blair following the fall-out from the 2003 Iraq war. 

So commentary about the supposed big beasts and personalities is not just inevitable, but also irresistible given the way the EU referendum has played out.

Cameron has not had a good EU referendum campaign and it’s arguable that his involvement seriously risks tipping the balance towards the Brexit side.

Again, it’s perhaps reminiscent of the way Cameron and Osborne’s presence in Scotland during the mammoth Scottish independence campaign was widely perceived to have had a ‘toxic’ effect on the No side with Yes supporters claiming that every time one of them headed north support for Yes increased.

By the same token, Cameron’s ongoing involvement risks driving many anti-Tory voters into the arms of the Leave campaign, particularly given there will be those without strong feelings on the EU, one way or another, who take a view that inflicting a defeat on Cameron is all that counts.         

The perceived toxicity of Cameron and Osborne, combined with some of the ‘dog-whistle’-style tactics used by Leave that have heavily focussed on claims that the UK’s ongoing membership of the EU will mean a surge in immigration, that Pro-Europeans have viewed as ‘shrill scare stories’, could also prove critical.

With some opinion polls suggesting the Leave side now has a lead big enough to deliver a vote for a Brexit after 43 years of UK membership of the EU and its forerunners, there will be those in the Eurosceptic camp convinced the prevailing wind is now with them.

That’s where the personalities’ factor comes in again, with Brown’s intervention seen as part of moves by Labour to mount a particular type of argument for remaining in the EU.

Brown’s re-emergence on the political stage is apparently motivated by Labour concerns that many of the party’s supporters are tempted to back a Brexit, partly due to being alienated by Cameron and George Osborne’s de-facto leadership of the Remain campaign.

Brown’s claims that remaining in the EU would present opportunities to create employment, tackle tax avoidance and boost workplace rights are all part of ‘a positive agenda for Labour voters’, who may be toying with the idea of backing Brexit.

Predictably, there have been those who suggest Brown’s ‘Rocky-style comeback’ will make little difference and that the former PM now has little sway outside his own heartland of the Kingdom of Fife.

That’s a case that can be argued either way and it’s noticeable that Alistair Darling, doubtless still carrying the scars from his leadership of Better Together, has not played a huge role in the

Remain campaign, perhaps not wanting to risk polarising opinion against his own pro-EU side, until the final countdown when he joined forces with the Tory chancellor to warn of the devastating economic consequences of a Brexit. 

The conventional political wisdom is that it’s Labour supporters who will determine the outcome for good or ill, with the true-blue Tory shires, the one-time Thatcherite stronghold of Essex and even satellite London commuter towns thought to be fertile ground for the Brexiters. 

The same is largely true for the pro-EU camp in Scotland, with polls showing a sharply higher level of support for Remain than in England and the vast majority of the SNP faithful signed up to that case.   

But it could be people living in rock solid Labour areas, like the East Yorkshire port and dock city of Hull, North East England and the West Midlands cities of Birmingham, Wolverhampton and the Black Country town overspills who tip the balance. 

It’s perhaps ironic that people living in such conurbations are for once viewed as the key battlegrounds – ‘that is to say, listened to’ - rather than the supposed middle ground ‘upwardly mobile’ voters in south-east of England constituencies. 

The Cameron/Boris story is unlikely to play well in poverty-ravaged and socially deprived parts of Hull or the West Midlands, areas where housing shortages, unemployment and low income existence is rife and where low voter turnouts are also an issue.

But former PM Brown may also not have much favour with such voters, who probably paid little heed to his dramatic and choreographed intervention in the independence referendum.

Such voters may feel they have little to lose if the UK pulls out of the EU and for that reason may be attracted by the simplistic Leave campaign messages about immigration and supposed wasted taxpayer contributions to Brussels.

But rather than Brown, it was shadow chancellor John McDonnell who has so far made arguably the starkest pitch to people of that persuasion, even though his close ally and Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been accused of failing to do enough to make the pro-EU case.

McDonnell’s declaration that he was a “sort of Eurosceptic” who did not like the institutions of the EU all that much may yet strike a chord with those alienated by the mainstream politicians on both sides of the referendum divide, who he said have “turned people off” with their negativity and personality-driven approach.

Perhaps McDonnell’s warning that a Brexit means people will “suffer badly with austerity politics” will hit home more than the words of most politicians on either side who are unlikely to feel the pinch much themselves, whatever happens in the UK’s first vote on Europe since 1975.  

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