The respective debate plans were clear from the start. Remain’s was to repeat that quitting the Union would be a leap in the dark. Leave’s was to stress that Britain has a great future outside the EU. For the former, Nicola Sturgeon was authoritative, Amber Rudd feisty and passionate, and Angela Eagle the attack dog (so to speak). For the latter, Andrea Leadsom was calm and considered, Gisela Stuart cooly intelligent (she topped the Times’s Red Box poll), and Boris Johnson both infinitely sharper than he used to be – the bumbling and stuttering is now mostly a thing of the past – and admirably unruffled under fire.
And what fire: not the odd popgun attack fired off at his cheeky persona, but a nuclear-charged barrage on his record, personal integrity and standing. Note that it came not only from Eagle and Sturgeon, the Conservative Party’s political opponents, but from Rudd: indeed, the Climate Change Secretary was first off the mark to assail him, ended by doing so again, and kept it up in relentlessly in between.
Immigration, she said near the start, is “a complex problem…you need to look at the numbers. But the only number Boris is interested in is Number 10!” And she ended as follows: “Boris is the life and soul of the party. But he isn’t the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.” The implication was clear – and, as is the way with these matters, deniable. The MP for Uxbridge would not only crash the car but, shortly before doing so, shove his hand up your skirt.
Now you may think that this last remark is below the belt (so to speak). Or you may believe that it is fair comment – or both. But one fact about it is undeniable: it was a blue-on-blue attack – unmissable, unmistakable. And as a live attack on national TV, it marked a new low in the clear and present dangers to party unity. It is inconceivable that both it, and the wider assault of which it was a part, could have been delivered without prior approval at the highest levels of the Remain campaign. Indeed, the attack will surely have been crafted there. Rudd is a medium-level Cabinet Minister – liked by David Cameron and a protege of George Osborne, whose PPS she was during the last Parliament. The voice was the voice of the Climate Change Secretary. But the hands looked like those of friends of the Chancellor.
Cameron has said that he didn’t want to participate in referendum debates because he wants to avoid blue-on-blue attacks. After yesterday evening, it can fairly be said that he wasn’t telling the truth – on that last point, at any rate. If the Prime Minister really wanted to shun them, Rudd would never have delivered those carefully-scripted lines. In a way, though, the lie is actually a tribute to Boris. Michael Gove may give Leave its intellectual depth. But it is the former Mayor of London who has the wider reach, and of whom Downing Street is evidently scared out of its wits.
It follows that, from Number Ten and the Treasury’s point of view, his reputation must be destroyed. This is not to say that Leave is fighting by Queensbury rules – far from it – or that the stakes are not just as high in reverse, if not higher. Leave is going after Cameron personally: on Turkey, on immigration. If it wins the referendum, the Prime Minister is probably out, and sooner rather later. He and Osborne are fighting for their political lives.
It is all the more striking and significant, then, that Leave did not respond tit-for-tat last night. Its trio was arguably more dull and less sparky that Remain’s. But it was more coherent: where Sturgeon and Eagle, for their own different reasons, couldn’t stop themselves launching attacks on the Tories, Stuart stuck to her script. It was also more expert. Leadsom co-founded Fresh Start. Stuart turned against the EU project because of her own personal experience as one of Britain’s representatives in the European Constitution process. And it had about it a poise that is a sign of growing self-confidence – of a sense that Project Fear may be running out of legs and credibility.
Be this so or not, one point is clear as a result of the debate – which, we enthusiasts must always remember, won’t have been seen by most voters (and was at least half an hour too long). Cameron and Osborne may be shy of debating Boris themselves. But they are happy for others to do their low and dirty work. Sure, a lot of mud is being thrown at them as well as by them. The difference is that it is beginning to look as though throwing it is all they have left in their locker.