George Trefgarne, a Director of Open Europe, remembers the campaign that kept Britain out of the €uro and notes, wistfully, that few of the campaign's key players have been recruited by David Cameron. He argues that Business for Sterling was, perhaps, the most successful campaign run by the right for many decades.
So far, only the economist Roger Bootle has remembered. But in the rush to point fingers at the guilty men who would have led us into the euro – Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair and their fellow travellers in the City – we must not forget those who successfully campaigned to keep us out: Rodney, now Lord Leach and his merry men. Not only do we as a nation owe them a debt of gratitude, their campaign was perhaps the most successful on the right of British politics for many decades.
It initially emerged that Tony Blair wanted to use his then considerable political capital to join the euro in 1998 in a scoop by Robert Peston, who was political editor of the FT. The news triggered a great speculation, not just in financial markets but in Westminster and the media too. The Conservative Party itself was on its knees following the electoral rout the previous year. The public at large were not that interested and pretty soon it became clear Britain could be levered onto the single currency by default, on the basis that it was “inevitable” and “business is in favour.” Indeed, you could argue that joining the euro soon became the only real Blairite dogma.
Rodney, whose day job is consigliere to the Keswick family at Jardine Matheson, called together a handful of Tory bigwigs, including Conrad Black, the Marquis of Salisbury and Rupert Hambro, and founded Business for Sterling. Nick Herbert, now MP for Arundel, was hired as chief executive and a campaign got underway, with one aim: to convince Tony Blair that he should back off, because it would not be worth the bother to call a referendum.
What started as a somewhat lonely, marginal enterprise gradually gained momentum as, again and again, it not only made the right strategic calls, but the right tactical ones too. The first big strategic call was to understand the importance of the business vote in this particular issue, not just as a source of financial support, but political influence too. In this, the role of the CBI was critical. The fanatically pro-euro director general, Adair Turner, had thrown the employers’ organisation behind Mr Blair’s agenda. Business for Sterling targeted it with supreme ruthlessness. It turned out that Turner’s authority for his stance was derived from a survey of only a minority of large corporate members. Once the wider CBI membership of smaller members was included, support for the euro fell away.
The second strategic call was to make to make the campaign genuinely cross-party. To put it politely, the core eurosceptics in the Commons and elsewhere were never going to be popular enough to win a referendum. Some 40 Labour MPs were covertly signed up as supporters. And Business for Sterling also joined forces with an outfit called New Europe, founded by Lord Owen and Janet Bush, an ex-economics editor of The Times. New Europe was essentially the Islington arm of the campaign, tasked with getting the BBC and the Guardian onside (an uphill struggle at the best of times). Even New Europe never won over the Financial Times, which bizarrely continued to support euro membership until a few years ago.
Tactically, Business for Sterling was one of the most innovative extra-Parliamentary political campaigns ever. It pioneered the use of things which, in those days, Conservatives affected to ignore: celebrity endorsement (even signing up Bob Geldof and Gerry Spice); focus groups and research; the internet; and viral marketing. With M&C Saatchi it produced a fantastic advert showing the word “euro” as a pair of handcuffs. And through something called the Sterling Clubs it built up a carefully managed network of thousands of supporters right across the country, from FTSE 100 directors to small businessmen. They even managed subtly to influence the Treasury and get repeated nods and winks from Ed Balls, who at that point was the rather grandly titled chief economic adviser to the UK Government in charge of Gordon Brown’s so-called Five Economic Tests.
Perhaps Business for Sterling’s greatest innovation, however, was with people. It became a training ground for some of the most talented political campaigners of the last decade. There was Alex Hickman, who took over from Nick Herbert as chief executive and went on to advise David Cameron on the EU when he first became leader; Dominic Cummings, the intellectual force behind Michael Gove’s educational reforms; Neil O’Brien, now head of Policy Exchange; George Eustice, now MP for Cambourne and previously press secretary to Cameron; and James Frayne who subsequently helped defeat John Prescott in the North East Assembly referendum (and who blogs about campaigning here).
It was a joyous day indeed when Tony Blair hoisted the white flag in 2003 and said the Five Economic Tests had not been passed. Not only had the country been saved a terrible monetary fate, but the No Campaign (as Business for Sterling had become) was the first and only outfit to defeat Tony Blair in his electoral prime.
Tragically, what many of the victorious campaigners have in common is that they have since been essentially rejected by the Cameron machine. Truly, prophets are not without honour, save in their own party. Business for Sterling never had a 100% happy relationship with the Conservative Party. During most of its existence, David Cameron himself was head of corporate affairs at Carlton TV and though a supporter, but not much involved.
Imagine, however, if they had failed? It is no exaggeration to say Britain would be in nearly as bad a state as Ireland is now, suffering the aftershocks of an even worse boom and bust than what we have just experienced and subject to the strictures of an undemocratic EU bailout. For those who feel some thanks for Leach & Co would be in order, there is one consolation. Rodney is now chairman of the No to AV campaign, otherwise known as the rematch.