EU Referendum: Gruelling times

5 February 2016

This week saw a landmark moment in the run up to Britain’s EU membership referendum, with the publication of draft proposals from the European Commission giving the first indication of the deal on which the Government will pin its bid to remain in the EU.

While the Prime Minister was keen to trumpet the draft deal as having achieved many of his key goals in the renegotiation process, the document was (perhaps not unexpectedly) not welcomed with the enthusiasm he may have hoped for.

Some of his own Conservative backbenches variously described the proposals and the guarantees around them as “thin gruel”, “male bovine excrement” and “polishing a poo”.

However, while Eurosceptics appeared united in condemning the Prime Minister’s negotiation attempts, it seems that this may be the only thing they can agree on.

The ‘Leave’ campaigns have all variously made the headlines for inter- and intra-campaign squabbling and backbiting.

At present, three such campaigns are vying for dominance and official recognition by the Electoral Commission: Leave.EU, Grassroots Out and Vote Leave.

In particular, the rivalry between Leave.EU and Vote Leave has been especially heated, given the former’s more openly anti-Government stance and overall approach.

Vote Leave, currently the leading cross-party campaign group, has attempted to refresh itself by appointing former Conservative Chancellor Lord Lawson as its Chair.

Perhaps more significant, however, was the demotion of Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott from the board of the organisation. Mr Cummings in particular has been seen as a barrier to the merging of the Leave.EU and Vote Leave campaigns, and last week faced off a bid by Conservative MP Bernard Jenkins to oust him and Mr Elliott from the board.

In spite of these changes, however, challenges remain in merging the two campaigns. While Leave.EU, funded by UKIP donor Arron Banks, welcomed the removal of the Mr Elliott and Mr Cummings, it then suggested that the appointment of Lord Lawson revealed Vote Leave to be little more than a “Tory front”.

There appears to be recognition in both campaigns of the need for unity, but as of yet, the campaigns remain divided. The BBC reported today on leaked letters indicating growing irritation within the campaigns, including from Labour donor and Vote Leave Deputy Chair John Mills.

Frustration over this disunity has reportedly led leading Labour Eurosceptic MP Kate Hoey to resign from Labour Leave and Vote Leave. Labour Leave is also said to be preparing to de-affiliate itself from the Vote Leave campaign.

Ms Hoey has now reportedly attached herself to the new out campaign group Grassroots Out. The group has also attracted UKIP Leader Nigel Farage and former Conservative Defence Minister Liam Fox.

The increasing splintering of the out campaign, which could take on a more partisan aspect with the departure of Labour Leave from Vote Leave, should in theory be making it harder for the campaign to succeed. - It has certainly led possibly the most senior Eurosceptic in the Cabinet, Iain Duncan Smith, to decide to campaign independently.

In contrast, the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign has not only put on a united front but has also managed to attract significant donations from the likes of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan.

Further, the Prime Ministers moves to assuage the demands of Cabinet members has reportedly wooed Home Secretary Theresa May and London Mayor Boris Johnson away from the Out campaigns.

However, the latest polling indicates that it is the out campaigns who may have the last laugh. The most recent poll from YouGov has given the out campaign a lead of nine points. Thus far, it seems that the Prime Minister’s attempts to convince the nation that he has secured a strong deal are failing.

The advantage of a well organised campaign should help the In campaign, in theory, but increasing speculation of a referendum in June could mean that there is insufficient time for such a campaign’s infrastructure to be effectively deployed and utilised. 

More importantly, if the public is fundamentally unconvinced by the Prime Minister’s negotiation attempts then funding and organisation may prove insufficient to drive up support for continued EU membership.

While the Out campaigns will need to get their act together if they are to take on the establishment forces at the ballot box, the trend in the polls suggests that it is possible they may succeed in spite of bitter infighting.

Madhav Bakshi, Political Analyst
Madhav Bakshi
Political Analyst

Madhav Bakshi is a Political Analyst within DeHavilland’s Editorial Team and leads on Energy policy. He is a graduate of King’s College London, where he studied International Politics.