Last week, a new anti-EU campaign group, Grassroots Out (GO), was launched in an article in the Daily Telegraph. The byline was an event in itself – it saw Tom Pursglove, the newly elected MP for Corby, become the first Conservative MP to co-author an article with Nigel Farage. The third co-author was Labour’s Kate Hoey.
The Eurosceptic world is, of course, famous for (some would say cursed by) its multiplicity of groups. Bone himself pointed out to the BBC that there are “about 40” anti-EU organisations of one sort or another – though some are larger than others, and they vary in areas of interest, points of ideology and types of activity (though there is undoubtedly a lot of crossover in members – as a glance at the badge galleries adorning some lapels will tell you). The Leave side of the referendum already features two would-be official campaigns, Vote Leave and Leave.EU. So why, observers can be forgiven for asking, launch yet another anti-EU outfit?
It’s a good question, and the answer illuminates the nature – and some of the problems – of the Eurosceptic movement.
Bone’s plan for GO bears some study. He tells me that he does not intend it to be a new campaign, and he doesn’t intend it to have anything beyond a skeleton infrastructure. Rather, he wants GO to act as a rallying point for existing campaigners. In practice, he hopes it will function to bring together people in each constituency who agree on the EU, if on little else, to carry out voter ID canvassing before the referendum campaign proper begins. It won’t seek to become the officially designated Leave campaign (which will be a relief to those already following the Vote Leave/Leave.EU race). He assures me that GO will sign up to support whichever of the two competitors secures that designation.
So why do this now? The history and psychology of the Eurosceptic world plays an essential part. For those who have spent years, or indeed decades, pressing for this referendum, waiting for it to arrive can be a frustrating experience. Not knowing the date of the referendum, the Government’s various attempts to skew the terms of the race (e.g the attempt to abolish purdah, and the behind the scenes debate about suspending collective responsibility for ministers), fears that the Remain campaign might get an opportunity to shake off its initial problems and various other factors all aggravate this pre-existing inclination to champ at the bit. That impatience certainly seems to be on Chris Grayling’s mind, as he skirts Downing Street’s new rules, for example.
The three MPs at the core of GO are no different. Each is utterly committed to leaving the EU – it is without doubt their top issue. Bone, Hollobone, and Pursglove are more than just constituency neighbours – the first two are long-standing allies, who both put a lot of effort into getting the third elected last year. Sources who know them well describe the relationship between Bone and Pursglove in particular as that of master and apprentice or even as father and son.
The ongoing contest between Vote Leave and Leave.EU has exacerbated the frustration at waiting for the true battle to begin. Bone is certainly far from alone among eurosceptics in feeling “fed up” and arguing that “we need to get on with it”. I’m told that his proposal for the project was first put to Vote Leave, who rebuffed it. At that point, he approached Arron Banks’ Leave.EU and found a warmer welcome. Indeed, Banks has loaned GO Richard Murphy, his Director of Field Campaigning, who originally held that post at Vote Leave, before switching groups (Bone denies that this compromises their independence, and tells me that he would also welcome such a secondment from Vote Leave).
Murphy is playing a central role in Bone and Pursglove’s new outfit – an email sent by him to various eurosceptic Conservative MPs explains that his job is “to co-ordinate all GO’s campaign activities on the ground”. Effectively, Banks’ grassroots boss is managing the Grassroots Out ground operation. Notably, the email also promises that “GO will pay for any room hire” – Bone confirmed to me that Banks, among others, are funding the operation.
This matters for two reasons. First, it could provide an opportunity for Leave.EU to make up ground in the race to secure designation as the official Leave campaign – as I reported back in September, one of the crucial criteria in the Electoral Commission’s decision will be whether the group has sufficient reach across the full political range of anti-EU opinion. So far, while Vote Leave enjoys the support of Conservative, Labour, DUP and UKIP MPs and MEPs, Leave.EU has had to rely on the support of Farage and the bulk of UKIP’s Brussels group. If, through close work with Grassroots Out, Banks’ eventual application to the Electoral Commission can point to his co-operation with GO’s Conservative, Labour and DUP MPs, then he could make his deficit less stark.
There’s no suggestion that Bone and Pursglove are launching GO with anything but their declared honest intentions. Indeed, Bone expresses some hope that perhaps the spirit of co-operation on the ground will trickle up to the national campaigns. But if Banks has shown anything so far it’s that he’s wily, well-resourced and committed to fighting his corner. If the thought that this could be an opportunity for Leave.EU hasn’t crossed his mind, I would be extremely surprised.
Second, the involvement of Banks and Murphy further complicates matters for Conservative MPs. While the idea of greater co-operation on the ground certainly appeals to some, others are worried about what joining the operation would mean in practice. Some have serious concerns about encouraging their local activists to sign up to a campaign co-ordinated and funded by people from the UKIP-leaning Leave.EU, and about helping that campaign to gather voter data, lest UKIP find some way to benefit from the knowledge in election campaigns after the referendum. Bone, it should be said, assured me that any data would be supplied to whichever campaign gains the official Leave designation and that he would insist on it being destroyed once the referendum was over.
If this all seems rather Byzantine, that’s because it is. While the eurosceptic movement benefits in some ways from its history and its depth in numbers, it is also troubled by them. Grassroots Out has only been going for a week, but before it has even launched a website it is already affected by the complexity, competition and sometimes suspicion which are the downsides of 50 years of Eurosceptic campaigning.
Nor does this just apply to GO – it is notable that while Leave.EU launched with a claim that it had the support of Get Britain Out, the Bruges Group and the Campaign for an Independent Britain, after six months all three organisations are now absent from their roster of ‘Support from other Leave groups’. It should perhaps be no surprise that Eurosceptics – whose bloody-mindedness, independence and stubbornness make us what we are and have secured this hard-won referendum – can be difficult to manage.
It’s also a cautionary tale for the wider right in Britain. If there are so many problems in uniting anti-EU activists in a short-term battle on the one area on which they (broadly) agree, then the often-declared ambition of permanently re-uniting the right in the longer term will be far, far harder.