The European Union referendum now lies splayed across the political event horizon like a giant jellyfish with which we are all soon going to have to wrestle. History will explain how Nigel Farage, whom I have interviewed for this magazine, tortured the Conservative Party into wasting the nation’s time and energy on what is essentially a Tory in-house disagreement. But this is his dream come true; and what a many-tentacled nightmare it turns out to be.
Make no mistake: in less than a year, Great Britain could be out of the EU and no longer Great or, indeed, Britain. David Cameron’s departure will surely follow Brexit, which will also be followed by Scotland’s attempted split from Britain. The splenetic strain of the Conservative Party will be left running Little England—for that is what we will be—and its business for decades to come will be the treaty-by-treaty renegotiation of our relationship with every other country in the world.
Why are we in danger of sleep walking to Brexit? Two reasons: the “in” campaign and the “out” campaign. The former is tangled, confused and complacent; the latter replete with experience and a fierce vitality.
The “ins” as presently configured, are, of course, bedeviled by macro politics that stall and occlude their purposes… What concessions can the Prime Minister get from the EU? When will he start campaigning? How exactly does all this play into George Osborne’s succession plans for himself? Which cabinet members will campaign to leave the EU? How can they then be part of the government? Where is Boris Johnson in all of this? Theresa May? But let us for a moment take the “ins” at face value.
Their first problem is their ostensible leader. Stuart Rose looks and sounds like the great chief executive of Marks and Spencer he once was—focussed and wiry, he radiates competence, work ethic and a steady mercantile understanding of high-street footfall. He is the opposite of what the “in” campaign needs. At the launch, which I attended, he seemed under-prepared for the political fray and actively to dislike cheerleading, rhetoric or enthusiastic case-making of any kind. He looked and sounded cautious, unwilling or dragooned. His speech was poorly structured, poorly written and poorly delivered—all in a salt-dry voice. Certainly, the “ins” need Stuart Rose on hand to make the many calm and clinching business points. But surely the leader’s job is to promote the case with warm and passionate conviction as well as authenticity. Even if—as with Rose—all he is doing is holding the fort until Cameron and Osborne mobilise.
Then there’s the authority question. Will Straw, the “in” campaign’s Executive Director, might one day be a force for good in the country. He’s decent, willing and impossible to dislike. But he looks and sounds out of his depth. At a recent debate, the first between the campaign leaders, he was properly pitted against Dominic Cummings, the battle-hungry director of what will surely become the main “out” (“Vote Leave”) campaign. This was Straw’s first real public test. He did not do well. As soon as the debate opened to questions, it became clear to the audience that Straw was not across the detail. He was unable, for example, to counter the demonstrably false figure of the “out” side that it costs £55m a day to keep us in Europe and instead the chair had to do it for him; and then—staggeringly—he had not even heard of the Rotterdam Effect.
What’s the Rotterdam Effect I hear you cry? Agreed: it’s not something most people would be expected to know. Not unless you were, say, the Executive Director of the “in” campaign. The Rotterdam Effect is the contention that lots of goods traded into and out of the vast port of Rotterdam are counted as trade with Europe even though their onward destination may well be non-EU; and that this therefore distorts the figures around our reliance on EU trade.
So, by way of contrast, to the pre-eminent “out” campaign group—“Vote Leave.” What of them? Straw’s nemesis, Dominic Cummings, is ferocious, committed, unafraid, serious, passionate and utterly certain of his cause. (His reputation from the time he spent working as Michael Gove’s Senior Advisor at the Department for Education is that he’s all of these things to the point of combustion). Meanwhile, he knows everything—and I mean everything—about two subjects in particular: Europe and referendums.
On the former, Cummings’s blog has long been the world’s most forensic source as to why the EU is deleterious to Britain. And on the latter, he has fought and won campaigns and referendums for large parts of his adult life. He was the director of the “no” campaign to stop Britain joining the euro between 1999 and 2002; he was co-founder of the campaign that won the referendum on saying “no” to the North East Regional Assembly.
There is background and personal history here, too. The strategic leader of the “in” campaign is the long-suffering Ryan Coetzee, who was one of Nick Clegg’s most senior aides. Meanwhile, it was Dominic Cummings, who tore into the Liberal Democrats (they accused him of leaking a series of emails) after the announcement of their universal free school meals policy in the last parliament. The two men are not best friends. But Cummings doesn’t care about pleasing people. His main purpose on Earth, as he sees it, is to cut waste, to attack otiosity, thin departments, get things done. If he is an idealist, it is because he dreams not of ideological consummations but of burnished and streamlined political systems.
On the night, he won the live debate against Straw by some distance and without really concentrating. He had long answers and short answers, killer facts and could quote at will from the sub-clauses of reports. Had the whole decision been on a show of hands that night, we’d be out of Europe by now.
The point is this: for the “outs,” the EU referendum is their life’s great work and moment, this is the single issue above even party politics on which the fate of their idea of nationhood hangs. For the “ins,” this is little more than a political annoyance that they are desperate to put behind them so they can get on with what they see as the real business of government and the more gleeful pursuit of their own legacy (Cameron) or career (Osborne). On the surface, the two campaigns look as though they’re balanced; but one is shallow and irritable and hamstrung and the other is deep and convinced and kinetic.
The real danger is that when the phoney war is over, the “ins” will find themselves outgunned, outflanked and totally unprepared for the ferocity and skill with which they will be assailed. Which would be a disaster, because the “outs” are right about one thing: the EU referendum is not merely an annoyance and the fate of the nation really does hang on the outcome.
Which brings us back to the macro- politics. Cameron’s entanglement is as neat as it is nasty: he can’t start campaigning for “in” because that ruins his negotiating position with Europe; but whatever the outcome of the negotiations, they won’t be enough for the “outs;” so the Prime Minister will then have to campaign for “in” regardless; which the EU already knows and is thus disinclined to give him anything substantial in negotiations. But still, there are dozens of positive, persuasive, emotional and factual reasons to believe that—on balance—Britain really is far better off and stronger in Europe. And so the “ins” cannot afford to let the “outs” make all the running.
Jellyfish are simple, brainless creatures but there is one famously lethal species whose sting is so painful that its victims often go into cardiac arrest before the deadly toxins even have time to take hold.