Neither tackling lies nor making the case: the Remain side – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Neither tackling lies nor making the case: the Remain side

The Brexit result will reverberate for years. Even within the first few days of the Leave vote, UK political dynamics twisted into a set of inter-related crises, while economic impacts continue to pile up, from a falling currency to financial organisations looking to move into the eurozone.

Many came to the instant verdict that the Remain side economic case failed in the face of anti-immigration sentiment and the ‘take back control’ slogan. Yet the communication failures of the Remain side go beyond that.

David Cameron could not have been worse placed to explain the strategic argument for solidarity and cooperation in the EU… Cameron and his Tory team…  deliberately stood back from active participation in how to handle the various challenges and crises facing the EU – from the refugee crisis to the unemployment challenge produced by the global economic crisis and eurozone crisis combined.

The most startling demonstration of the weakness of the Remain side was their failure to convince the public that Leave’s big fat lie that the UK sends £350 million a week to Brussels was just that – false. Yet even the BBC, in its efforts at balance and impartiality, or perhaps nervousness at attacks from the Leave side, failed to correct that, rather repeating both sides claim about it.

The Remain side did attempt to set out the various economic benefits of EU membership that made it worth being a net budget contributor – at about £8.5 billion a year i.e. about £163 million a week. Yet this was done – as the whole campaign was – in such a narrow, costs and benefits for Britain way that the wider, more strategic case for the EU was essentially not made.

In addition, some of the most powerful economic statements and arguments were made before the end of May – apparently shifting the opinion polls sharply towards Remain. But the Remain campaign did not then appear to have a strategy for the final month of the campaign to build on this, instead failing to keep up the momentum of their arguments on the economy and without clear arguments on free movement and immigration.

The failure to brand the £350 million claim as a lie perhaps came in part from the lack of unity across the Remain campaign. But it also came from the fact that David Cameron could not have been worse placed to explain the strategic argument for solidarity and cooperation in the EU.

Under Cameron as Prime Minister, the UK lost substantial influence in the EU over the last six years. From the start, Cameron and his Tory team – if not, until last year, his LibDem coalition partners – wanted to limit and inhibit what the EU did. They also deliberately stood back from active participation in how to handle the various challenges and crises facing the EU – from the refugee crisis to the unemployment challenge produced by the global economic crisis and eurozone crisis combined. Even on Russia and Ukraine, Cameron took a back seat leaving Merkel to lead.

With Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ with the EU resulting in a deal whereby the UK, alone of the 27 other member states, was no longer committed to political integration in Europe, the UK was poised to be an outer-tier, opted out member state, with less influence, less responsibilities, fewer roles.

Cameron branded this as ‘the best of both worlds’ for the UK. But a world where the UK stands by, as the EU faces some of its biggest challenges in several decades, is not a world where Remain leaders could also argue that the UK was one of the EU’s leaders, or at the forefront of tackling key common challenges.

Faced with the narrowest cost-benefit analysis of why the UK should be in the UK, Leave voters were unconvinced. Equally, both main political parties, Tory and Labour failed to make a strong case for the social, political and economic benefits of free movement in the EU. Nor were Cameron and other Remain Tories going to argue that voters’ unhappiness with the state of the NHS, housing and education was a result of their own policies and nothing to do with the EU or immigration.

Meanwhile, Labour was also in some disarray. Corbyn proved a reluctant and unconvincing communicator on the EU – setting out a few sound bites on workers’ rights, without enthusiasm. Nor did Corbyn seem any more able than Cameron to imagine a wider, strategic case for the EU, even at a time of global and regional challenges from climate change to war and conflict in the Middle East. Labour could point to Tory cuts as underpinning the challenges in education, the NHS and housing – but the absence of a clear, anti-austerity, anti-cuts policy from the Labour opposition also weakened this case.

In the weeks, months and years to come, what the Leave side branded ‘project fear’ may come to look like a considerable understatement. The strategic weaknesses of the Remain side – and not only the lies and distortions of the Leave side – contributed to the vote for Brexit. While many are already criticising Labour for not getting more of its voters to back Remain, it is the case that Labour, LibDem, Green and SNP voters all backed Remain by more than 60%. It was Tory voters who split 58% to 42% for Leave, plus almost all UKIP voters.

In the end a Conservative Prime Minister, who made the fatal choice to hold the EU referendum, utterly failed to convince his own Tory voters of the Remain case. It is ultimately Cameron’s failure and it stems not just from weak communication and weak strategy but from a lack of real commitment to the strategic case for the EU and for the UK to play a strategic role in Europe