It would be unfair to claim that the Remain cause represents an elite – after all, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are no less members of one than are, say, David Cameron and George Osborne – but it is certainly the cause of an Ascendancy. EU membership has been a foundational belief of the two main parties in office for the best part of at least half a century. With them have marched in step a recent party of government, the Liberal Democrats; Scotland’s main force, the SNP; the CBI; the TUC; the Archbishop of Canterbury; Gary Lineker; J.K.Rowling; Benedict Cumberbatch and James Bond, sorry, Daniel Craig. If that isn’t an Ascendancy, we don’t know what is.
Many of those who backed Remain two summers ago, perhaps most, have come to terms with the referendum result. They may not like it, but they accept it – and want to move on. Others do not. It is essential to grasp that for some of them, Britain’s decision for Brexit was different from other votes not only in scale, but in nature. It wasn’t just a political verdict. Rather, it was deeply personal: a wound to their sense of self – to their idea of who should run the country, regardless of which party governs, and to their own status within it. To these Remain diehards, the natural order of things has been turned on its head. The Ascendancy is no longer ascending.
It has been left bewildered by the change, like a shaggy mammoth unprepared for the end of the ice age. A sub-section has found its obsession with fighting Leave running ahead of its wits – see Guido Fawkes’ list of ten people driven mad by Brexit. A sub-sub-section has found comfort at the consoling breast of conspiracy theory. The referendum result shouldn’t have happened. Therefore it can’t have happened. The people were deceived! They were lied to! (Let us pass over George Osborne’s forecast of an immediate recession, half a million unemployed, and an 18 per cent fall in house price value.) They were manipulated by Cambridge Analytica, the Great, the Terrible! (“Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”)
The Observer and Channel 4 are among the last refuges for this tendency, and their latest venture is worth probing only to demonstrate its essential worthlessness. They claim today that Vote Leave may have broken the EU referendum spending rules, and report that AggregateIQ, a company used by Vote Leave, is linked to Cambridge Analytica, of Facebook fame. In so far as these allegations add up to a coherent whole, it is that the referendum result may have been illegitimate, because it was perhaps obtained not only by over-spending, but – to revert to one of the conspiracy theory’s old memes – by the Wizards of Analytica working hand-in-glove with Arron Banks of Leave EU, who himself was in covert co-operation with Dominic Cummings of Vote Leave.
There is an opera buffa sub-plot in which Shahmir Sammi, a young volunteer with Vote Leave, turns out to have had a relationship with Stephen Parkinson, then head of ground operations at the campaign, now the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary. The latter insists that this is material to claims now made by the former about Vote Leave’s spending. Sammi, meanwhile, now has a “relationship (used in the general sense” – in the words of Dominic Cummings, the former Director of Vote Leave – with Christopher Wylie, the former Liberal Democrat staffer (fixed term contractor, the party says) and ex-Director of Research at Cambridge Analytica (part-time contractor, it claims), who made public the firm’s alleged misuse of Facebook data.
We linger over these knotty links only to make a quick point. If a whistleblower acts from a disinterested sense of the public good, Wylie’s story suggests that he isn’t one. First he worked for the Liberal Democrats. Then, in effect, for Steve Bannon: an ideological as well as a geographical leap. In 2016, Wylie “tried to sell me the same crap he accuses Cambridge Analytica of doing – and I told him to get lost (in writing),” in the words of Cummings. Now Wylie has told his tale to the Guardian. This looks more like attention-seeking than whistle-blowing. If you won’t take our word for it, try Ben Rathe, a former Nick Clegg press officer: “Chris Wylie thinks he’s Edward Snowden, when he’s actually Walter Mitty.” As for Sammi, time will tell. Vote Leave says he has changed his story twice since 2016.
Through the mist of these uncertainties, three truths stand out. First, Cummings says that to believe that he worked as part of a secret plot with Banks is like believing “that Trump ran for President as part of a secret plot with Obama.” This understates the problem with the conspiracy theory. For Cummings to have worked secretly with Banks would have been more like Trump having run for President as part of a secret plot with Ted Cruz, his main rival for the Republican nomination. Just as only one man could get it, only one Leave campaign could get the official designation. Banks was determined to be part of it. Cummings was determined to stop him. Banks tried to force Cummings out. If you doubt it, read Tim Shipman’s All Out War. Or go back through the ConHome archives.
Second, Vote Leave strongly denies breaking spending rules. You may or may not take the campaign’s word for it but, whatever your view, any serious interest in the allegations must be married to a real understanding of how those rules worked. In short, there have been and are repeated claims and counter-claims about breaches of Electoral Commission rules in terms of donations to other campaigns – not to mention overspending. These have been made about both the official Leave and Remain campaigns. The Electoral Commission has investigated allegations against Vote Leave twice. The official Remain Campaign has been also been subject to claims about overspending. No allegation has been upheld.
But let’s suppose one is eventually – whichever way. This would be unlikely to alter the fact that the Remain campaigns outspent the Leave ones by £19 million to the best part of £13.5 million. And that’s before taking into account the £9 million of taxpayers’ money that the Government spent campaigning for Remain before purdah kicked in: in short, Remain spent twice as much. But it still lost. Which leads to the third point: lavish campaign spending does not guarantee electoral success. If it did, James Goldsmith would have gained some Commons seats in 1997. Remain would have won the referendum. And Theresa May would now have a majority.
The Remain Diehards, the upended Ascendancy, have failed to stop Article 50 being moved, and to wreck the EU Withdrawal Bill in the Commons. Brexit is scarcely more than a year away. Are they really investing their hopes of stopping it in taking attention-seekers at their own face value? In believing that any breach of Electoral Commission rules, itself unproven, would outnet Remain’s spending advantage, and somehow invalidate the referendum result? Is the great cause of European unity now reduced to targeting the Prime Minister’s Political Secretary? Perhaps its locker is otherwise bare.