Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.
In confirming that his Cabinet colleagues will have the freedom to differ over whether Britain should Remain or Leave the EU in the referendum, the Prime Minister has quickened the pace of the debate. Nobody can be quite sure whether it will prove more of a marathon or a sprint. Westminster wonders whether a decent renegotiation outcome at February’s EU summit could see him fire the starting pistol for a vote this summer. In which case, the vote could be done and dusted only four months hence.
A more drawn-out diplomatic process might yet see the referendum put back into 2017, when the mid-term mood might be choppier, with Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande’s attention focused on the national elections in Germany and France. The biggest unknown is the referendum outcome. British Future’s new pamphlet How not to talk about Europe sets out how both Remain and Leave command the committed support of around a quarter of the electorate each: the two minority tribes who have been engaged in the EU argument over the last couple of decades.
Most people, however, say that they could change their minds. Many people who recognise that this is a pretty big decision for Britain are open about not having given the choice much attention yet – and also that they don’t yet think they’ve got the information and answers that they need to make up their minds.
The British Future pamphlet glimpses into the crystal ball at what the media might say the day after the vote, suggesting that the choices that the Prime Minister’s colleagues make could have a decisive impact on the referendum outcome. Here’s how the crystal ball suggests the referendum could be won or lost by both sides, in four different referendum result scenarios.
The wettest Thursday in a decade sees Leave win by 51 per cent to 49 per cent on a turnout of 49 per cent. Nigel Farage’s call to “bring out your brollies and break out of the EU” won the day as Remain campaigners reflected that a negative campaign about the risks had given too few of those ‘leaning in’ any reason to turn up, and with Labour so focused on internal divisions that its voters got mixed messages about whether anybody really cared about the vote.
Having put the optimistic global case for Brexit, Boris Johnson looked like a hot favourite to replace a crestfallen David Cameron, whose political career now ended in a historic defeat, while Nicola Sturgeon argued Scotland’s Remain vote was clearly a mandate for a second vote on independence.
An uncertain and temporary truce
A narrow win for ‘Remain’ in a knife-edge vote, on a 55 per cent turnout, saw men split 50-50 but women break decisively for‘In’, feeling that the questions about what ‘Out’ would mean had not been answered. After such a close campaign, ‘Leave’ campaigners believe there will be a next time for Brexit, venting their frustration on social media under the #EUst.
Britain’s got Euro fever
Perhaps it was Wayne Rooney’s winning penalty to put the Germans out in the semi-finals? Or Gareth Bale’s call not to cut the next generation off from the chance to work abroad? After all the security fears about the Euro 2016 football tournament, pictures of fans happily mingling in the streets provided positive European mood music.
The Prime Minister felt that his renegotiation success on immigration and benefits, and the positive reception it received among Conservative voters in the post-summit polls, was crucial. A considerably smaller Tory referendum split than most expected left UKIP and Nigel Farage as easily the most prominent, but polarising, champions for Leave. That secured the support of those voters most concerned about immigration, but ultimately lacked enough credibility on the economy to win others over.
The Swing Out Sisters
The result was the last of many surprises in a campaign in which Remain had begun with a solid lead. Yet Leave won by a surprisingly decisive margin, with a 60 per cent share on a General Election-style turnout of 65 per cent.
Many felt that Theresa May’s decision to campaign against the Prime Minister could be the political masterstroke that now propels her to Number 10. And nobody expected Nigel Farage’s surprise decision to take a back seat, with his UKIP successor Suzanne Evans joining May in a duo dubbed ‘The swing out sisters’.
And Labour MPs’ decision to putsch Jeremy Corbyn after disastrous results in London and Scotland saw the Left split apart – with the ex-leader and the Momentum movement campaigning for what columnist Owen Jones called the ‘Lexit’ option. Meanwhile, the Remain campaign was widely criticised for the high profile of Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Michael Heseltine, as Richard Branson’s admission that Britain shouldn’t rule out joining the Euro dogged the campaign to the end.
Ultimately, only one part of Britain voted strongly to stay in – with #RepublicofLondon trending on Twitter as the capital struggled to comprehend how the rest of the country had revolted against its lead.
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So the referendum is wide open and up for grabs. Either side could win it – or indeed contribute to its own defeat by preaching mainly to the converted, rather than to those who need to be persuaded.
The Prime Minister’s decision leaves several of his colleagues the biggest decision of their political careers. But all the referendum players know that the final verdict will not be theirs – but what the British voters decide.