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The renegotiation of Britain’s membership has achieved little

My column in The Times on Britain’s EU membership referendum:

Public opinion about the European Union is divided, like Gaul, into three parts: one third are already firmly in the “leave” camp, one third would remain in whatever happens, and the tussle is over who gets the middle, undecided third. It’s like pulling a Christmas cracker — part of it will go one way, part of it the other; it’s what happens to the middle bit that matters.

The infighting that has broken out among those campaigning to leave is partly about personalities, of course, but it is also about how to appeal to those swing voters in the middle. Specifically, do you win these people over by talking about immigration, the issue that dominates the news, shows the EU at its most incompetent and reverberates strongly outside the metropolis, where people worry about the effect it has on houses, hospitals, schools and local services? That seems to be the view of the Leave.EU campaign, led by Arron Banks and with Nigel Farage as its best-known spokesman. They make the case that the metropolitan elite is out of touch with the bulk of public opinion.

Or are most such people in the “leave” section of the Christmas cracker already, and the ones in the middle would be positively spooked by too much emphasis on immigration? Instead, or so argue Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott, of Vote Leave, what counts to these people is whether leaving the EU would threaten their jobs. Most of these middle-opinion people do not like Brussels, and probably want to leave, polling suggests, but they could hesitate before voting “leave” if they think it means they, or their children, will find it harder to get work. Neutralise that argument — “project fear” as they call it in Downing Street — and Leave will win.

In some ways the ideal situation is to allow the Farage faction in Leave.EU to mobilise the core vote, while the more bipartisan Vote Leave faction focuses on the economic arguments that appeal to the undecided.

The gossip about who hates whom within and between these two groups may deter donors — and some Conservative members of parliament who are weighing up whether to go with their anti-Brussels instincts or listen to the whips who tell them they will never get promotion under George Osborne if they campaign to leave. But it largely goes over the head of ordinary voters in Redditch or Renfrew. However, the moment of “designation”, when the Electoral Commission anoints one group as the official Leave campaign, could soon be approaching. Vote Leave looks far more likely to get that designation because of its broader, bipartisan nature. So it just needs to keep calm and carry on until David Cameron’s renegotiation concludes later this month.

At that point there is a real possibility of big beasts breaking free from the cabinet to join the Vote Leave campaign and give it the frontman it lacks. No 10 is spinning that they have all the big beasts “in the bag” in order to herd the party towards accepting the prime minister’s deal. I don’t buy the spin and I think there remains a reasonable chance that Vote Leave will get major reinforcements when the deal goes public, from inside and outside the cabinet.

After all, the difference between the fundamental reform that the prime minister promised in his Bloomberg speech three years ago and the trivialities he is now reduced to arguing about must be making some fellow cabinet members distinctively uncomfortable.

Mr Cameron presumably thought he would never have to go through the motions of these renegotiation talks without the heat shield of Lib Dem coalition partners. He’s now reduced to deciding whether to accept an offer of a temporary brake on benefits for migrants, if other countries agree and if there is a crisis. This would do little or nothing to calm people’s worries about migration, not least because people come here mainly for the jobs, and in future the living wage, not for benefits.

In order to defeat Project Fear, and reassure the average voter in Morpeth and Monmouth that she can vote “leave” and not lose her job, the Leave campaign will have to use the ten weeks of campaigning to paint a lifelike picture of life in Britain outside the European Union.

They will have to persuade people that we will not be insular and insecure, but a big country with a flexible and thriving economy attracting international investors and innovators because of our good relations and free trade with both the EU and the fast-growing economies of Asia and elsewhere. The Japan of the West, only more open. On the other hand, the campaign will also have to neutralise fear by entrenching in people’s minds the point that there is no status quo: staying in carries just as many uncertainties and risks as leaving. For example, the migration crisis could lead to the collapse of the Schengen agreement, just as the euro could also collapse. And if either is to be averted, then it will probably require vastly more centralisation of political decision-making, worsening the democratic deficit.

We are living in fantasy land if we think that under those circumstances vague promises made to Britain about ever-closer union, or on not making decisions that hurt non-euro countries, are worth any more than the paper they are written on.

I keep hearing talk from those who want to remain about the “retribution” that might be meted out to us if we left. Don’t count on negotiating a favourable trade treaty with the EU, they say, or getting associate status in EU research programmes (as Norway, Switzerland, Turkey and Israel have), because Brussels will be so sore at our having left that they will drag their feet over every deal, or do everything they can to spite us, even if it is not in their interests to do so.

Well, my friends, I am increasingly worried about retribution if we stay in. Feeling grumpy with us after we made such a fuss over renegotiation, but having successfully called our bluff by conceding so little, our partners and Eurocrat masters will say to us (in courteous diplomatic language, of course): right, you pestilential Brits, like it or lump it, you are now in for good. We never need pay any attention to your worries again. We’re off to integration and you are locked in the back of the car. There is no alternative. You see: two can play at Project Fear.

By Matt Ridley | Tagged:  rational-optimist  the-times