The Blog

Sunshine on a Rainy Day: How David Cameron Has Turned a Romp Into Squeaky Bum Time


Yesterday's 'shock poll' revealing that Leave has soared into a seven point lead over Remain was just that - a shock. The palpitations calmed somewhat with the realisation that even in this poll 13% remain undecided; I was able to reassure (or maybe delude) myself that the undecided always break for the status quo. Another platitude trotted out, I'm sure, in Downing Street yesterday, is that this is exactly the right time for a poll like this, galvanising the less passionate Remainers into Doing Something. This was our 'weekend before the Scottish referendum' moment.

Well, great. I am still just about convinced that Remain will prevail next week, partly because the above is true (just because these are platitudes it doesn't mean they're not realistic), and because other trends are emerging, even if only anecdotally, such as hints that older voters may actually vote according to what their grandchildren want‎. (Why this hasn't been a big plank of the Remain campaign I do not know.) But even if we squeak home the campaign will have been an abject failure. Success should not obscure just how bad it has all been in reality.

Let's cast our minds back. David Cameron originally called this to kick the ugly can of Tory Europhobia down the road. Then he cast it as an opportunity to lay this to rest once and for all, to lance the boil in the ‎country and in his own Party. Well, a 53-47 win will not do that. Instead it will have emboldened and galvanised the phobic, deepened and personalised divisions in the Party, and allowed some extreme positions and misleading claims about the EU to become common currency. It has, as many predicted years ago, been an abject failure.

Why did it turn out this way? Months ago lots of commentators called on Cameron to run a positive campaign - or at least a campaign that included positive elements. That has barely happened: Nicky Morgan made a good speech at one point extolling the virtues of Europe but that disappeared into the morass of overblown negativity that ‎no doubt plays well with the focus groups. Then there was the failure to secure anything in the negotiation with Brussels that spoke to the future - a commitment to the deepening of the Single Market, a pledge to bring in a proper auditor of EU spending, with teeth - which could have been sold as a benefit of us staying in. The campaign had holes in it from the start. No wonder it has resembled so often a bunch of middle aged men frantically bailing out their boat as it takes in more and more water.

And those men! So many men, white, middle aged, stale, pale, untrusted politicians. It takes a special kind of talent to allow the opponents of a fundamentally liberal cause to establish a young (ish) ethnic minority woman as the passionate face of their campaign, whilst yours is a ruddy faced Young Farmer-type who doesn't always look like he believes what he's saying. Hats off to Amber Rudd; without her this would have been the least diverse campaign imaginable. She, by the way, deserves a bigger job after all this, whichever side wins.

The latest piece of Remain literature, pressed into my hand at Waterloo this morning, hints at what might have been. It includes quotes from well-known folk who I suspect strongly would be far more trusted on this than any politician. And it looks like they have something to say: JK Rowling, for example, says that the benefits of being in are "not just economic". That sounds interesting - why not have her say a lot more and get the focus groups to confirm whether she carries more weight with a generation of Harry Potter fans than, say, George Osborne? Why not utilise that unexpected advocate of the EU, Jeremy Clarkson? Why not, in short, use 'relatable' people, not just what we've had.

Just the other night I sat with a leading light in the old Better Together campaign and we bemoaned the fact that this referendum has been as badly fought by the 'status quo' side as the last one was. This is the problem of allowing the official Remain team to be led by 30-somethings from inside the bubble, advised by an older Svengali or two from inside the bubble, with polling and strategy being delivered by smart guys (but from inside the bubble), and the whole thing fronted by the most inside the bubble Prime Minister we've ever had. It's no surprise that we've had the campaign we've had: grimly effective at best, not exuberantly triumphant. And a campaign that will resolve very little, even if it wins.

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