Read more: EU referendum: how to make the case for Europe
Read more: Twelve things you need to know about Brexit
Two observations are common currency at Christmas parties around Westminster. One, that we are heading for a Brexit. The other, that this is not in the UK’s interest—nor is it the intention of either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor. How did we get here? And can it be recovered?
How we got here starts and finishes with David Cameron. His decision to hold a referendum was not in the national interest—it was done purely for reasons of internal party management. All parties are coalitions that become unstable when internal factions refuse to compromise in the interest of the whole. In the Conservative Party, the divisive issue is the one that has historically caused them most difficulties: free trade. It split them in the 19th century over the Corn Laws and it is now doing so over the European Union.
The Tory leadership is mercantilist—for free trade and all that flows from that including a single market in goods and services, and free movement of capital and labour. The membership—representing an equally historic strand of Toryism—prefer a more closed and managed economy and a less heterogeneous society. These ideologies are becoming increasingly incompatible and rather than confront and beat those within his party who oppose capitalism, David Cameron chose the line of least resistance—kicking a conflict into the future, hoping that something would turn up.
This is bad enough—flirting with an existential crisis for your country in order to cover the cracks within your own party. But worse is the way in which the Prime Minister has funnelled the conversation over Europe until it has become almost solely about migration. Cameron knows three big things about this issue: it is a measure of the success of the UK economy that people want to come here; migrants add to economic growth; and migration within the EU is fundamental to its functioning.
And we all know a fourth thing now—if we don’t go to them then they will come to us. Unless we address and resolve the underlying drivers of human movement, whether economic or violent, then that movement will continue. This final factor is what, in the public mind, is turning a right decision in favour of staying in the EU into one leaning decisively towards Brexit. “Stop the boats” is a far more palatable rallying cry than “stop the world, I want to get off”—though they both amount to the same thing in the end. Cameron is trapped by his own strategy and no amount of fiddling with residency qualifications for welfare can get him off the hook.
This wouldn’t matter so much if there was a decent campaign to stay in the EU. Unfortunately, that campaign is struggling to cut through. Again, David Cameron is partly responsible. He has decided that there should be no Tory campaign while he “renegotiates.” This leaves the pro-EU campaign unable to be cross-party. Nearly as bad, incidentally, is Labour’s childish decision not to campaign with other parties, which draws entirely the wrong lesson from victory in the Scottish independence referendum.
It is also partly to do with the utter cowardice of British business, who are unwilling to court controversy and state what they believe—that it would be an economic disaster to leave the EU. Instead, as in Scotland, they hope that the public will spontaneously come to their senses. If they didn’t know in advance how reckless that was, they know now.
Given this string of errors and mis-steps, what is the route back? First, Cameron should not appoint Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. That is yet another “too clever by half” move with only two purposes. One is internal party management—the “what to do with Boris” question. And it comes with a side serving of leadership race—if Boris is Foreign Secretary then he has less time to gather his support, and making him put the case for the EU potentially removes some of his maverick charm. The other is to add to the gaiety of political theatre. The current Tory cabinet is dull, dull, dull and Johnson is a character. But this is not an adequate response to an existential question. Serious times require serious politicians.
There is only one sensible route—to return to the fundamentals. Only a third of voters are up for grab in this referendum. A third are against EU membership come what may, another third are for it under any circumstances. The floating voters are either young people, who are unlikely to vote or even be registered, and an older group who see nothing in the EU for the country. Both groups need hope and inspiration.
It is still possible to see a virtuous circle in which they reinforce each other’s support for staying in. Young people have the most to lose in opportunities for work and education. Older voters can be persuaded to see it in human terms—as the best choice for coming generations. This is an emotional case not a logic-chopping one. Capture hearts, and minds will follow. And the campaign has to make businesses come forward—not old, grey and discredited companies, but youth brands and entrepreneurs.
Time is running out and minds are being made up. The theatre of the Prime Minister dashing around Europe is amusing for Westminster insiders. But the reality of changing public opinion should be of far wider concern.