During the referendum campaign, the Leave and Remain campaigns boxed on even terms, largely because of the role of purdah. Before it kicked in, government was able to further the Remain cause with every weapon in its armoury – the full help of the civil service, the publication of official dossiers, and so on. But although a government can use its resources to go on the offensive, it is also by its nature always on the defensive, too. Never was this more vividly illustrated than in the wake of David Cameron’s renegotiation, when his puffed claims for it were pooh-poohed not only by Leave campaigners (noisily) and by unaligned media, but by some Remainers (sotto voce) into the bargain.
Christmas will mark six months or so on from the referendum, but a pattern of debate about Brexit is already taking shape. Article 50 will be moved at the end of March. Until then or thereabouts, Theresa May and company will say as little about the detail of their negotiating position as they can, for obvious reasons. This necessarily denies her Government much of its offensive capability. But it will simultaneously be on the defensive in a new way. The Prime Minister is faced by what George W.Bush might have called an axis of Remain campaigners – ranging from some of the banks to much of big business to some Conservative MPs to Tim Fallon to Keir Starmer to the commanding cultural heights of the elites in academia, law, the media and the arts who made up a slice of the 48 per cent.
Some parts of this spectrum still hope against hope that Brexit can be averted by Parliament bringing it down. But most of it accepts the referendum result (in fact if not in spirit), and now pins its hopes on Britain staying a member of the Single Market – a case that would have its merits were it possible to square with a reduction in EU migration. However, this was not on offer to Cameron before the referendum, and is not on offer to May now. To this end, every piece of bad economic news will be amplified, whether it is connected to Brexit or not, and the worst possible gloss put on developments that are debatable. For example, it is arguable that the real problem with sterling has been not its recent weakness, but its preceding strength.
Brexiteers should make no complaint about this activity: Remainers and others are perfectly within their rights to campaign for single market membership to continue. Instead, they should be asking themselves some hard questions. Who is counter-attacking the attackers? If a politician who forecast economic collapse in the summer now forecasts economic collapse next year, where is the push on social media to highlight his record? If a group of pro-EU academics puts out a dossier reporting that academics are leaving Britain, where is the project that will research the figures separately? If a business claims that Brexit will be a disaster, but contributed funds to the official Remain campaign, where is the briefing to remind journalists of this inconvenient fact?
Some Conservative MPs are more than doing their bit, and moves are under way to organise their efforts. But MPs and Ministers cannot grapple alone with the forces of Remain – especially the latter, who have jobs to do and departments to run. The right-of-centre think-tanks are producing some thoughtful work. But the counter-attack outside the Commons to date has largely been confined to the leader columns of the Daily Mail and the Daily Telegraph. There is a gap in the market for a Brexit equivalent of the Taxpayers’ Alliance – something that campaigns, has a war room, does rapid rebuttal, and is up bright and early each morning to make its case. In short, what’s needed is a form of Continuity Vote Leave.
That organisation went two ways after the referendum. Matthew Elliott, now with Jonathan Isaby, is over at Brexit Central. Meanwhile, many of the campaigning MPs active in Vote Leave are with Change Britain: Michael Gove, Gisela Stuart, Frank Field, Dominic Raab. The organisation was launched with a video starring Boris Johnson. Brexit Central’s most distinctive product to date is its online newspaper. Change Britain is, in its own words, “the campaign to make a success of Britain’s departure from the EU. We aim to build a broad coalition that brings together people from inside and outside politics, regardless of how they voted in the referendum, to get the job done”. This is a laudable aim. It is not to be confused with the daily grind of shining a spotlight on Continuity Remain.
The campaigning of the Remain coalition is unlikely to stop Brexit – for once Article 50 is moved, it is hard to see how the process will be halted. Rather, the danger is that it will gradually eat away at the authority of the Government – emboldening the small number of Conservative MPs who wish the Prime Minister no good, and providing cover for rebellions on a mass of other issues. May’s real majority is larger than its formal one of 16, and Labour is not an effective opposition force. But David Cameron found it difficult to get legislation through Parliament in much the same circumstances. Brexit is less vulnerable to the Remain campaigning than is the Prime Minister.