Richard North, 13/02/2016  

"Why the constant aggression? Why antagonise potential allies?" asks Alex Story, former CEO of Business for Britain, having briefly replaced Matthew Elliott who has moved on to greater things.

Story has now joined to head up and represent a newly-formed business group. And from that elevated position, he feels qualified to advise me on the response to Ruth Lea's latest offering in City AM. "Why not team up and destroy our insane opponents?" Story suggests.

One can applaud the sentiment. Obviously, we need to be working together: "united we stand, divided we fall", and all that. But Mr Story also needs to work on his naivety.

By way of background, we are engaged in the political battle of the century, and to win it we need to do three things. Firstly, we need to convince enough voters that we need to leave the EU. Secondly, we need to offer them an alternative vision – one which is better than anything the EU has to offer. Thirdly, we have to be able to reassure people that moving from the EU to our alternative is practicable and safe. That is our so-called exit plan.

These three things I have previously described as the "three-legged stool". In my view, they are not optional. Together, they comprise the essential elements of the campaign. Without them, I am convinced that we cannot win this referendum.

What we don't need, therefore, is people of status and some prestige coming out of the woodwork, promoting ridiculous and totally unworkable ideas for an exit plan, and then undermining the work of those people (such as myself and all the other contributors to Flexcit) who have come up with a workable plan.

But, in her CityAM article, that is precisely what Ruth Lea is doing. She knows full well the content of Flexcit, and she thus knows that a major component of the first phase is the adoption of the Norway option. Yet, writes Lea: "attempts to remain within the Single Market by reapplying for European Economic Area (EEA) membership on Brexit (the "Norwegian option") strikes me as totally misplaced".

This dismissal of our work is not accidental. For as long as I can remember, Lea has evaded any debate, devoting her energies to promoting her own child-like nostrums about world trade, ideas that fall apart when subjected to any robust scrutiny. But despite being factually wrong on so many issues, she rejects even the mildest of criticism. She does not engage with it – she simply re-asserts the same errors, time and time again, seeking friendly, uncritical audiences to parade her wares.

Despite the gravest reservations over her current position, and the constant changes, she makes no attempt whatsoever to justify her claims. And far from acknowledging or addressing her many errors, she has yet to acknowledge the possibility that any of the golden words she utters could in any way be flawed. Instead, she consistently undermines our position, using not fact or argument, but a series of ex cathedra assertions, the Holy Writ which lies above the reach of us mere mortals.

To Story and his like, therefore, our response is simple. We ask why Lea seems to be going out of her way, constantly to undermine our work and ignore sensible options - why she insists on pushing her insane ideas and dragging us all down. By what right does she consider herself immune from all criticism yet feel free to dish it out, on matters she clearly does not understand?

To his point about "teaming up", our response is that it works both ways. We have invested a huge amount of work in our exit strategy and all we see of Ruth Lea and her fellow travellers are quite deliberate attempts to damage it. For the likes of Story, effectively, telling us to mute our criticisms of Lea, while she gets a free pass to dole out her pernicious nonsense, is simply not acceptable.

Moreover, this double standard is getting extremely tiresome. We have indeed invested a great deal of work in this enterprise. We have opened up our work to scrutiny, argued it openly and invited comment – of which we have received a great deal. And, unlike Lea and here aristocratic claque, we have responded to it.

Yet, without a fraction of the effort or understanding, we get members of the eurosceptic "aristocracy" casually dismissing our work - mainly to defend their own shoddy, superficial efforts at bolstering their own prestige. And we are supposed to bite our tongues, to avoid antagonising "potential allies"?

It really is quite bizarre that no-one seems to think it necessary to approach Miss Lea and suggest that she tones down her comments to avoid antagonising us. This is strictly a one-way street. But why does anyone think we should accept this one-sided view? Why is it that no-one should think to avoid antagonising us?

To dismiss Flexcit, even if she does not refer to it specifically by its name, as "totally misplaced", is as arrogant as it is unhelpful.

We perhaps can shed a little light on this phenomenon from a comment in the Guardian, where a "leading Tory Eurosceptic" is cited as saying that the anti-EU campaign was experiencing a bumpy patch because many figures had been waiting decades for this moment. He said:
The challenge at the moment is that there are lots of people for whom this is the culmination of years and years and years of work. This is Christmas and birthday and Easter and the moon landing and the second coming of Christ all at the same time, and they absolutely want to be at the heart of it. It is too exciting a gift to let go of".
The limited insight this gives, however, must be carefully tempered. We are dealing here with (largely) the Tory eurosceptic "aristocracy". For decades, they have done very little actual work, but have pontificated long and often, mostly in excruciating displays of ignorance that have characterised the movement as being populated by "loonies", "fruitcakes" and worse.

But now we have a referendum and these people feel they have earned a right to take pole position in the debate, using the platforms afforded as endless opportunities to parade their egos. They are thus defending their own positions and fending off what they see as competition.

The idea of agreeing a consistent message is not one that has ever occurred to them, and the enforcement of message discipline is utterly alien. Worse still, the concept of gauging a message in order to evoke a specific response from a targeted group of voters is one which they could not even begin to comprehend.

But because this "aristocracy" consider it their God-given right to pontificate whenever they feel inclined, in whatever manner they deign to consider appropriate, us lesser mortals are supposed to hold our tongues and give them free rein, no matter how much damage they do.

And so it goes on. But Mr Story and the others really do need to take notice of some very simple ground rules. Unless we unite around a credible, properly structured narrative, and impose a rigorous message discipline on accredited speakers, we are going to lose this referendum.

All the time, we are accumulating hostages to fortune – providing massive amounts of material to the other side, for their use against us for when the campaigning gets fully into gear. At this rate, when it is all over, this same "aristocracy" which has been so cavalier in its approach will be looking around at each other, saying: "how did that happen?" "How did we manage to lose?"

Should the need arise, we will be there to tell them, but I would rather we did not lose. And telling us to keep quiet, so that we can "team up" with the purveyors of the vacuous drivel we've been hearing, is not a message to which we are going to respond.

We've done our homework, we know what we are talking about, and we're not going to tolerate people who should know better undermining our work. We're not going to suffer in silence. There is too much at stake.

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