With the late night Brussels debates already a distant memory, the official campaign now well under way and the referendum less than six weeks off, both sides of this debate are intensifying their attacks on the other. Although the Conservative party in particular could really do without this divisive referendum, the initial façade of friendly exchanges of opinion, punctuated by sighs and frowns, has already given way to a no holds barred public house punch-up. As the verbal barrage gets increasingly bitter, it’s worth having a look at those manning the barricades on both sides. (Not literally yet but there is still time……..)
Although some polls suggest that as many as half of all Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) will vote to leave the EU, only four cabinet ministers are on the Leave side, with the vast majority stating their intention to support the Remain campaign. The leavers are Michael Gove (Justice Minister), Chris Grayling (Commons Leader), John Whittingdale (Culture Secretary) and Teresa Villiers (Northern Ireland Secretary). Iain Duncan Smith was the fifth until his recent resignation from the post of Work and Pensions Minister. Although he claimed his resignation was due to differences over cuts to disabled benefits, many in the Remain camp believe it was politically motivated and timed to cause maximum damage to David Cameron.
So what sort of people are the Brexiteers in the cabinet? Gove is a friend of David Cameron or certainly used to be, and, until his bumpy ride as Education Minister, was believed to be a rising star of the party with leadership ambitions and potential. Iain Duncan Smith, often referred to as IDS, is a former leader of the Conservative party. Although he would have been free to speak against the EU while remaining in the cabinet, his resignation will underline the divide within the party. Chris Grayling is Leader of the House and previously held the important cabinet position of Lord Chancellor and Minister for Justice. His well-known right wing views fit neatly with his anti-EU stance. John Whittingdale was a fairly anonymous cabinet member, until he became headline news in recent weeks due to a past relationship with a prostitute. So far he has not chosen to resign, nor is he likely to. Theresa Villiers is perhaps more qualified than most MPs to comment on the EU and its faults, having twice been elected to the European parliament, where remaining true to her beliefs, she campaigned against the Euro and European constitution.
There are also some current and former big names of the Conservative party in the Leave camp, such as Michael Howard (former leader), Boris Johnson (former London Mayor and MP) who is believed by some to possess “charisma”, due to extra-marital affairs, outbursts of unpolished honesty and messy hair – how standards have fallen. Nigel Lawson, as a former Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) for six years under Mrs Thatcher, speaks with some authority on economic matters and is likely to attract significant press coverage.
Another voice from the past on the Leave side is Norman Lamont. The former chancellor and another former member of a Thatcher government has declared that Britain should seize the chance to leave and prosper outside of the EU.
Apart from Gove, who might have been expected to show loyalty to Cameron, and Boris Johnson, who was not expected to, there are no really big current names in the Leave camp.
Outside of the Conservative party the main high profile campaigner for a Brexit is Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP (UK Independence Party), which has been pushing for a referendum for a number of years and has partially created the circumstances in which David Cameron promised a referendum. Many anti-EU Conservative MPs increased pressure for a referendum at a time when there was great anxiety within the party about losing votes to UKIP. Although UKIP did not do very well at the last general election, and suffered from substantial post-election infighting, Farage’s man of the people/pint at the pub image still goes down well with a particular type of anti-EU voter.
David Cameron will not be short of support however, although he will have been very disappointed to lose Boris Johnson to the Leave camp. The majority of cabinet ministers, including those at important departments, are campaigning to stay in. Jeremy Hunt (Health), Philip Hammond (Foreign Secretary) and Michael Fallon (Defence) are all on Cameron’s side. Hunt’s judgement is under scrutiny as he struggles with a junior doctors’ strike, Hammond is unflappable but unremarkable and Fallon seems to be constantly wheeled out as a roving troubleshooter for any awkward issues. While none of them can be claimed to be electrifying or charismatic speakers, in terms of appearances the holders of big government posts offering their support certainly helps .
Lining up alongside them are such senior figures as Teresa May (Home Secretary, or Interior Minister, to give it a European flavour), tipped as a possible successor to David Cameron, and George Osborne, the current chancellor and also believed to have leadership aspirations. Osborne has already used his position, and the authority given by a growing economy, to issue dire warnings about the economic risks of leaving the EU. Both are part of the current bland political undergrowth which allows politicians with an ounce of originality, such as Boris Johnson, to appear exciting.
The Remain campaign also has former chancellor Kenneth Clarke and another big beast from the Thatcher period in the form of Michael Heseltine, both of whom are significant and articulate pro-EU voices but fall neatly into the “usual suspects” camp on the Remain side.
Both sides of the debate have naturally cast around for leading figures in show business and/or business to lend their campaigns credibility and a touch of glamour. The remain side has Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin (records, airlines, cola, banking) but the Leave campaign seems to be struggling to find really big players to put their names to the campaign.
Labour slumbers while Tories get ready to rumble (with each other)
While the Conservative party has been rolling up its sleeves for a long-awaited philosophical arm wrestle, the Labour party should have been making the most of a golden opportunity to prod the wounds of disharmony and show their own united front to the country. Although the party has had a pro-EU policy for many years there are a number of MPs, such as Frank Field, Kate Hoey and Gisela Stuart, who are actively involved in campaigning to leave the EU. Labour has been slow to show any enthusiasm for a campaign to remain, perhaps because new leader Jeremy Corbyn is not really a believer or perhaps because it is tempting to just stand back and watch while the Conservatives descend into a whirlpool of disunity and mutual loathing. His recent and to some extent reluctant endorsement of a vote to remain smells more of pragmatic politics – knowing the vast majority of the party hold this view – than an honest statement of his position.
Disunited Kingdom – the morning after
Given the increasingly passionate debate about the risks and opportunities a Brexit presents, and the fact that current polls show no clear leader, the arguments about this decision are likely to become more damaging as the campaign reaches its final phase. To imagine a functioning government after the referendum, with all hatchets buried and all the arguments forgotten, seems difficult. The Conservative party has it seems decided to eat itself and drag the country with it in an intense debate about what Britain is and wants to be, but as there was never any real popular pressure for a referendum this could well be a painful mistake which David Cameron regrets for years to come.
A decisive vote to remain would silence the leavers, for a while, and give Cameron some credit for offering the referendum, but the outcome is likely to be close. This will mean a divided Conservative party, divided country, and inevitable pressure from the losing side for another vote at some stage in the near future. The Scottish referendum on independence and its aftermath demonstrated that one referendum is unlikely to be the final word on such a big issue.
Brexit could mean Scottish UK exit
Should the vote go in favour of a Brexit the pressure from the so-called Scottish government for another Scottish referendum on independence will be huge and immediate. If given the chance Scottish voters seem likely to decide that they want a real government and a future outside of the UK but inside the EU – most polls indicate that Scots are consistently more pro-EU than the rest of the UK.
Many would argue that there can be no winners if the UK does Brexit and sails away from the EU. The economic consequences for all concerned are hard to predict but a period of uncertainty is likely to cause initial problems for both sides in a complicated divorce. Once the battle over custody of Scotland has been decided, the how and when of untangling treaties and deciding what replaces them will begin a period of partially organized chaos. Depending on who you believe, after a vote to leave the UK will either go bankrupt and collapse or climb to ever greater heights of economic power and become a shining beacon for nations around the globe. Economics being the dismal science that it is, no economic forecasts on likely outcomes are worth much analysis. The only UK winners, at least for a time, will be the triumphant anti-EU conservatives and UKIP. Once the dust settles and David Cameron has resigned or been kicked out, they will need to find a new leader and attempt to restore unity to a divided party. UKIP and Nigel Farage, having seen their dreams come true, will need to find a new bogeyman under the bed or accept that they are redundant and test the new conditions they have created in the jobs market. In this sense they could be winners and losers at the same time.
Beyond the politicians who have campaigned for the referendum, in the hope of leaving the EU, it is hard to see many people feeling like winners after a Brexit vote. Once the initial excitement over returned sovereignty, full vegetable control (see endless “shape of cucumbers dictated by Brussels” stories in British tabloid press) and a jobs market free of EU migrants has settled down, the country will need to face the reality of what “it” has done. The joy of eating any shape of vegetable and having to pick them yourself can only last so long.
The one big winner could well be Boris Johnson as the new leader of the Conservative party and prime minister, assuming David Cameron goes. Boris, as he is generally known, will finally get the chance to show the country whether he is a serious politician with the intellect and vision to lead the country or whether his bike riding and bluster routine really was the limit of his abilities.
The list of potential losers will include British citizens living elsewhere in the EU, EU nationals living and working in the UK, those seeking to study either side of the new border and those who usually take their holidays in the UK/the rest of the EU. How much disruption a Brexit will really mean for all of the above is impossible to tell. Will I, as a British resident of Germany, need to apply for a German passport to make my life in Germany less complicated? As one of the many British citizens living overseas who is no longer eligible to vote in UK elections, I will have no vote on this crucial matter. If we count losers as those whose lives will be uncertain and unsettled for some time, then the numbers are likely to be very high indeed.
Fever pitch fiction fails to move polls
With the finishing line in sight an air of desperation, exaggeration and even slight panic has entered the campaign. David Cameron’s recent speech invoking the EU as the reason for and guarantor of peace in Europe, Ian Duncan Smith’s assertion that the final UK position was changed to gain German approval, and Boris Johnson’s comments about the EU’s aim to unify Europe somehow being similar to Hitler’s aim to unify Europe under a single “authority” , demonstrate how much is at stake. While all of the above may be based on genuine conviction or, in Ian Duncan Smith’s case, the truth, a sense of the ridiculous bordering on an insult to voters’ intelligence is creeping into the debate.
As the intervention of national and international institutions and politicians (including the IMF, Bank of England and numerous retired US politicians) warning against a Brexit becomes an almost daily event, the polls and polls of polls (including The Economist, Financial Times and YouGov) seem stubbornly stuck on an almost equal split, with all showing just a couple of percentage points in favour of the Remain camp.
Fear and other factors
Whether voters care that much about the views of international institutions and the political class on this issue is debatable. Perhaps the economic arguments either way will sow the seeds of doubt in some minds, particularly among those considering a leave vote, but beyond this a mixture of long-standing prejudices, press campaigning, some anxiety about immigration and just gut feeling are likely to be the factors which influence most voters. All in all a narrow victory for the remain side is the most likely outcome but a Brexit result would not greatly surprise anyone in the UK. Well-meaning encouragement to stay in the EU, from foreign politicians who do not understand the British or in some cases even the EU properly, are likely to be extremely counter-productive. POTUS TAKE NOTUS! One more lecture like the last one from President Obama could tip the vote in favour of a Brexit, just out of sheer resentment at such an ill-judged intervention. Fear of the unknown is one thing but being threatened with the consequences of voting for Brexit is likely to bring out the worst in many of the undecided camp. The British are the British and do not like to be led, so the heart could rule the head.
The UK is about to make a decision which will potentially lead to a period of great uncertainty and disruption, for both itself and the EU, and perhaps the wider world. If it takes the great leap into the unknown this will eventually answer the question for the rest of the EU as to whether the future belongs to the nation state, to the current EU model or to some other sort of supranational creation. It could be jumping off a cliff or learning to fly solo again. For those of us watching, both without and within, it is fascinating, exciting and a little bit frightening.