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ASHCROFT pensive

The focus groups described in this piece took place on Tuesday and Wednesday, before the death of Jo Cox.

My final round of them, in St Austell and in Bromley, found that if the two sides of the campaign are feeling the pressure of the tightening polls, they are not the only ones: the voters are nervous too: “I swing so much between the two. I have actually got butterflies.” “In most elections, nothing really changes, but with this one you know in your gut that something big is going to happen. There are going to be major changes and that is quite frightening.”

The closeness of the race is “the reason I can’t make my mind up. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I really want to get it right.” Still, most people were determined to do their democratic duty: “It means I’m more likely to try and make a decision. If one side was running away with it, I might let it pass me by;” “I usually think, if you haven’t got an opinion, don’t bother. But this is pretty big.” (Not everyone was so resolute: “My mum always said if you don’t know what to do, don’t do anything. I’ve lived by that.” How did you vote at the general election? “Liberal Democrat.”)

Accordingly, most thought Nigel Farage’s observation that people were using the referendum to “put two fingers up to the political class” was wide of the mark. However much some people agreed with the sentiment, especially after the referendum campaign, our groups felt there was too much at stake to use their vote just to make a point: “This is real life. It’s real money and it affects real people.”

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Though most were determined to reach a verdict, they were less clear about how they would go about it. The fevered tone from both camps made it hard to take either side’s pronouncements very seriously, and each new warning about the consequences of making the wrong choice merely added to the “white noise” of the campaign: “You can’t actually believe the arguments of the senior people on each side. There is more and more nonsense. It’s impossible for the general public to come to a sensible decision.” “There is general disbelief in what they say because it’s getting ever more extreme.”

A few were optimistic for the final week. The campaigns needed to be “more focused and have actual facts instead of throwing mud around” and “I think that will happen now that Leave is ahead. Before they thought they could just blag their way through.” Most were less hopeful. Having breached the bounds of credibility so early in the campaign – war and economic catastrophe on the one hand, and on the other an inundation of potentially dangerous immigrants as new members join (“Turkey is next in line, and Siberia;” “I had a leaflet and it just had a map of Europe and highlighted how close Iraq and Syria were. They are both as bad as each other”) – neither side had anywhere left to go. Few in our groups had much faith that the truth was out there, or at least that they were going to get to hear it: “It’s only going to get worse.”

The prospect of George Osborne’s post-Brexit budget was the latest instalment: “The Chancellor was on the news this morning throwing his toys out of the pram and saying he was going to make us suffer.” And do you think he will? “Well, I think he very well might.” This was the worry. Though some were pushed towards Leave by what they saw as a blatant attempt to scare people (“how dare you threaten us?”), not everyone could discount the risk of it actually happening: “It’s a bit like blackmail, but effective blackmail.”

Many felt the campaign need not have been like this, and that a more measured, balanced approach would have been more enlightening: “Cameron shouldn’t be saying it will be doom and gloom. He should say there will be life after, but I’d prefer to stay.” “It would be nice to hear someone honestly say: ‘well, yes, it might be negative for these reasons but overall it would be better for these other reasons’.” Even so, he remained a fluent communicator: “listening to Cameron is a bit like listening to Morgan Freeman. He’s really convincing but I can’t remember a word he said.”

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The warning from Donald Tusk that Brexit could herald the end of “Western political civilization in its entirety” was widely admired by participants for its audacity and style. In a crowded field of hyperbole, “that’s pretty good going, isn’t it? That’s some claim.”

Though obviously “tosh”, the statement showed how desperate the EU was for the UK to stay on board. This was understandable, since “they’ll lose all that money” if Britain leaves, and other countries might follow suit, but it prompted another thought which did not help the remain cause: “I think they need us more than we need them.”

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Some had noticed that the Sun had declared its support for Leave. Nobody admitted that this would have any effect on them, but (as is often the case when it comes to the popular press) they did think it might move more impressionable souls: “I wouldn’t read it myself and it wouldn’t sway me at all, but it has the potential to sway a lot of people.”

Several thought the paper was following its readers, rather than trying to persuade them: “They’ve jumped on the bandwagon. They weren’t saying this to begin with, now they’ve seen which way it’s going.” After all, the Sun knew its market: “It’s a builder’s paper, isn’t it. People who have had their jobs taken by the Polish.”

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A number of employers have written to their staff with the aim of prodding them gently towards their preferred outcome – most recently Lord Bamford of JCB and Sir Michael Rake of BT. Some in our groups had been on the receiving end of similar letters, and were not very happy about it: “My boss did the same ‘why we should stay’ but I don’t really trust him. And so did the union. But I don’t really feel it was for them to push their opinion on me. You choose to go on the internet and look for stuff – I didn’t choose for that to be in my inbox.” Not everyone objected (“they can say they want to stay, of course, because they’re a big business”) but ultimately “it’s my opinion that matters. It’s about what I want”.

Participants had noticed business people making the case on both sides – Richard Branson, BT and others for Remain, and Sir James Dyson, Lord Bamford and “the guy who owns the chain of pubs” for Leave. All of which proved only that opinion was divided: “You get one great businessman on one side, and another on the other, so who the hell do you go with?”

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The Bromley groups were mostly happy with the Leave campaign’s assurance that projects receiving EU funding would be protected in the event of Brexit, and welcomed the idea that the money would be distributed from Britain rather than Brussels: “Why should the EU get to decide what we spend it on?” “If we’ll have enough money to pay these grants then it doesn’t matter either way, does it?”

This was not quite the view in Cornwall: “The European Social Fund and Objective One funding have paid for an enormous amount of things. Objective One funding has put high speed internet in the St Austell area. I benefit from that, I’ve got fibre-optic.” “There is a huge development down the road being funded by the EU.” Wouldn’t you get the same funding from Westminster if Britain were to leave? “I don’t know that we would. We get the dregs. We’re a bit of a forgotten county. We’re just seen as a holiday place.”

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“If we vote to come out, will we actually come out?” This was not an isolated question – several participants in more than one group wondered whether the government might somehow “wangle it” so Britain stayed in the EU in the event of a narrow Leave victory. “France and Germany might offer us something… I think they will try and negotiate again much better and we will have to do it again”. Was that really conceivable? It would not be the first time, some pointed out: “several northern cities voted against elected mayors but they’ve been told, ‘you’re going to have them’.” And after all, “if you can’t name a ship Boaty McBoatface when the people have spoken…”

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Some in the South West groups were familiar with Sarah Wollaston (“is she the Totnes one who changed her mind? She didn’t like the £350 million being painted on the battlebus”. Are you in a pub quiz team, by any chance? “We’ve won six years in a row!”), though not everyone (“is she in EastEnders?”) A few were cynical about her change of heart: “I suspect she has been offered a good job if they win. She has obviously got a cabinet position lined up.” But to most, she seemed more or less sincere, and her explanation – that if she woke up on 24 June and found we had voted to leave, she would feel a sense of loss that she would regret having been part of – “as good a reason as any to stay.”

Some thought it was nice to see MPs grappling with the issue in the same way that they were doing themselves, it didn’t really help: “How can we decide if they’re changing their minds every five minutes?”

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The Totnes Question – how will you feel if you wake up next Friday and the country has voted for Brexit – turned out to be a revealing one for our wavering voters. More often than not, it was a sobering thought: “Nervous”, “anxious”, “apprehensive”, even “alone”; “I just wonder what is going to happen next. If that does happen there will be five or six years of change.”

But some said their apprehension would be tinged with excitement, and even surprised themselves with their answer to the opposite question – how they would feel on hearing Remain had won? “I’ve just realised I would be disappointed. And before that I had no idea what I was going to do;” “I’d be a bit more anxious. Part of me thinks we’d be better outside. I find a new challenge quite exciting. If we hadn’t got that, I’d think, ‘have we made a mistake?’ ”

49 comments for: Lord Ashcroft: My final referendum focus groups. “I can’t make my mind up. It’s a lot of responsibility, and I really want to get it right.”

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