Political rocky road and
A series of gear changes throughout favoured both In and Out by turn
JUST ahead of the final month-long stretch of the In-Out campaign came a moment when the gears shifted with a jolt and the personal nature of the blue-on-blue EU “pyschodrama” was laid bare.
Lord Heseltine, the Europhile grandee, made a landmark intervention when he took a well-aimed potshot at the Vote Leave camp’s premier-inwaiting, Boris Johnson.
Bozza, said Hezza, had been guilty of making “preposterous, obscene political remarks”, he was losing it with his outlandish rhetoric and had effectively blown his chances of ever becoming prime minister.
It was only a few days earlier that the former London mayor had rattled the Remain cage by suggesting the EU and Hitler had the same aim of creating a European superstate – albeit by different methods.
It presented Mr Johnson’s opponents with an open goal and underlined how much of the debate would be about “playing the man”. Remain strategists believed that the more they could personalise the arguments towards the idiosyncratic Uxbridge MP and, even better, towards Ukip’s equally idiosyncratic Nigel Farage, the better their campaign’s chances would be.
On the same day as Lord Heseltine’s broadside, David Cameron enraged the Brexit camp by suggesting the only people who would be rubbing their hands at Britain quitting the EU were Russian President Vladimir Putin and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of so-called Islamic State. The heat in the debate was turned up.
Just two hours before purdah – the period when the Whitehall machine falls into a campaign sleep – struck, the Treasury ended a flow of anti-Brexit statistics with another dire warning about how leaving the EU could hit pensions. Pensioners, who are known to be the most likely section of society to vote, were, so opinion polls told us, largely pro-Brexit. The target was carefully chosen.
Chief Leaver Iain Duncan Smith branded the Treasury move “utterly outrageous” and as purdah began anti-EU MPs demanded any pro-EU links on government websites should be removed.
Then another Tory grandee made a splash. Sir John Major angrily took to the airwaves to have another mighty swipe at the Brexit Conservatives, denouncing their campaign as “deceitful” and “verging on the squalid”. He dismissed Mr Johnson as a “court jester” and suggested that leaving the NHS in his hands and those of Michael Gove would be “about as safe with them as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python”.
The Remain camp was beginning to look jittery, a feeling underlined when the Prime Minister upped the rhetoric, warning that Brexit was like “putting a bomb under the economy”.
A break in the clouds appeared for the In camp when Tory Sarah Wollaston, a former GP who chairs the Commons Health Committee, dramatically switched sides, complaining that Brexit’s claims on the NHS – that there would be lots more money for health care if Britain quit the EU – were simply untrue.
Then, out of the blue, Mr Cameron held an impromptu Westminster press conference to expose the Brexit camp’s catalogue of “untruths”. Vote Leave insisted Mr Cameron was panicking. It was difficult to argue the point.
Some 48 hours later, there was the enticing confrontation between Nicola Sturgeon and Mr Johnson. The First Minister supposedly had to be “cajoled” to share a platform with Tory cabinet minister Amber Rudd for Remain, but Stronger In appeared desperate to get back on the front foot and the SNP leader was “box office”, said one source.
Ms Sturgeon was her usual combative self, upbraiding the chief Leave campaigner for putting his personal ambitions to be in No 10 before the interests of the country. Ms Rudd quipped that BoJo might be the life and soul of the party but he was “not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening”.
Labour’s Angela Eagle took Mr Johnson to task over the claim on Vote Leave’s battle bus that Britain handed over £350 million a week to Brussels. “Take that lie off your bus,” declared the shadow business secretary. But the chief Outer insisted this was “cold, hard cash” that belonged to the British people, who would spend it more wisely than those pesky Eurocrats.
The personal attacks on the Uxbridge MP missed their mark and the lasting impression from the debate was how calm and collected the Brexiters were as they repeatedly used the mantra “take back control”. Leave tails continued to rise. Within 24 hours, the tables appeared to have turned fully when a poll of 2,000 adults for The Independent gave the Leave camp a 10-point lead; 55 per cent to 45.
Ukip’s Nigel Farage sensed the momentum had shifted his way. “People are fed up being threatened by David Cameron. People are beginning to put two fingers up to the political class,” he declared.
Alarm bells began to ring in Downing Street. The PM appeared on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show to insist his message had been “hugely optimistic and positive” about staying in the EU. But Mr Cameron looked subdued, as if for the first time he realised that this was a battle he could lose. Yet, instead of changing tack and toning down the rhetoric, George Osborne popped up to double up on
POSTER BOY: Nigel Farage makes his message clear.
POINT MADE: Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron.
THE ONLY WAY IS UP: Former PM John Major enters the debate.