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EU referendum: strategy is the problem

Richard North, 20/09/2012   305


Leadsom 124-pfl.jpg

In a well-judged intervention, Cranmer tells us that the Eurosceptic "movement" (if it be) is fundamentally a clash of gargantuan egos, none of whom will deign to co-operate or collaborate with their co-eurosceptics, principally out of a lack of trust, belief or respect.

So, His Grace tells us, with a referendum on the next EU treaty looming - and, as sure as night follows day, it is coming - please don't expect political coherence or campaigning strategy from the Conservatives, UKIP, the Democracy Movement, the Campaign for United Kingdom Conservatism, Better off Out, Campaign for an Independent Britain, the Freedom Association, or the Liberty League.

Frankly, he says, you have more hope of persuading a Wahhabi Sunni to sup with an Ahmadiyyan and plant the cornerstone of a new mosque. If a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand: the referendum may already be lost.

Hesitant as one is to disagree with His Grace, one has to say that he is wrong. This is not a matter of egos, gargantuan or otherwise, but of strategy. Egos we could cope with. The more profound differences over strategy are far more problematical.

Courtesy of Witterings from Witney, we see demonstrated precisely the point in the recent adjournment debate led by Tory MP Andrea Leadsom.

This is a woman who is determined that we should "renegotiate our EU membership - to remain within the EU but to have our absolutely best attempt at renegotiating a relationship that works for Britain, with full and free access to all EU assets, but without being hampered in a global world by EU regulation". What she wants, she tells us, is "fundamental reform".

No red-blooded eurosceptic could begin to agree with such a europlastic view, but within the debate there was also David Nuttall, Tory MP for Bury North. As chairman of the Lords and Commons "Better Off Out" group, he wants us to repatriate all powers from the EU.

We would have no difficulty in accepting this desirable objective, except that Nuttall does not think we are likely to be given the choice of an in-out referendum. He thinks we are more likely to get an in/in referendum: the choice of the status quo - staying in as we are now or staying in with 17/20, 18/20 or 19/20 of the status quo and repatriating a few powers.

The trouble is, as Leadsom points out, while a July 2012 YouGov survey had 48 percent wanting to pull out and 31 percent wanting to stay in the EU, if a new deal was renegotiated, the poll suggests that people would vote in a completely different way. Most - 42-34 percent - would vote to stay in the EU.

This is the eurosceptic nightmare: a referendum offering not the in-out option but the "reform-out" option. This would be very hard to win. Strategy becomes absolutely vital.

Then, as WfW reminds us, there is the Lilley point: during a referendum campaign, on average there is a 17 percent swing back in favour of the status quo. This means it is necessary to start with a 34 percent lead for change to have a 50 percent chance of winning. Starting with roughly half of people being in favour of leaving and a third in favour of staying would result in a vote to remain in the EU.

Problematically, though, our people are not thinking strategically. Under these circumstances, the Minford idea of unilateral withdrawal, followed by negotiation, would be a disaster. The uncertainties would drive voters into the EU camp.

Yet, despite the potential for disaster, this is the preferred UKIP option, and the guardians of the message are quick to stamp on dissident thought. There is no debate in this "outer" fraternity. You either conform with the approved message or you are consigned to outer darkness as a "traitor". 

Nor is there any recognition of the "Stokes precept", from Richard Stokes, the Labour MP for Ipswich, who on 15 October 1940 told the House of Commons in a debate on war aims that it "... is no use fighting for a negative object. You must have a positive one, and the sooner that [is] stated the better".

To gain a broader acceptance from the majority of the population that we should leave the EU, we must be able to offer a positive object. Simply to fight on the negative one of leaving the EU is not enough. And just to argue for a referendum, without the first idea of how you would win it, is suicide.

Those who refuse to accept this, who robustly argue simply for unilateral withdrawal and expect the nation to rally to that cause, are part of the problem – as much as those like Leadsom, who are arguing for "fundamental reform". Egos really don't matter. It cannot be emphasised enough that what counts is strategy.

Sadly, while the old saw, "divided we fall" may be true, uniting behind the wrong strategy could be just as fatal. We thus face the prospect of "united we fall, divided we fall". Even so, there is time yet to mend our ways. We should take the opportunity while we can, if we can.


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