Once purdah was over, the Remain and Leave campaigns boxed, during the EU referendum campaign, on more or less even terms. The primary emotions they aimed to stir were fear and anger respectively: anger with Brussels; fear of leaving. This balance of argument was reflected in the TV debates, in which the mutual stars of both sides were pitched against each other, and to which we will return later today.
The fortnight or so between now and the “meaningful vote” will be nothing like that. The Prime Minister still commands the bully pulpit of Downing Street, but there will be no Vote Leave or Britain Stronger in Europe campaign to oppose her. So what is she up to, since there is no referendum on her proposals, and voters have no direct say on them?
The answer is that she hopes to collapse the present majority of MPs against her plan by means of pressure from their constituents. We are sceptical of claims that almost 100 Conservative MPs are committed to vote against it. But there can be no doubt that at least 50 are on record as saying they won’t support it.
Add that total to the opposition parties, and Theresa May is up against it. Furthermore, the evidence suggests that voters have not yet got their heads around her agreement. According to Lord Ashcroft’s polling, voters “were slightly more likely than not to say they thought the agreement was better than leaving the EU with no deal”. But “by a 20-point margin, voters as a whole said MPs should “vote to reject the agreement, even if it is not clear what the outcome would then be”.
In some ways, her strategy will clearly be Project Fear Revisited. There will be apocalyptic forecasts of economic collapse if the deal is rejected. The Government will surely try to slice and dice these for individual constituencies, and contrast them against claims of higher living standards if the deal goes through Parliament. But voters have seen Project Fear discredited once, with its warnings of an immediate recession and 500,00 unemployed, and are likely to treat it, second time round, with even more cynicism than before.
However, the Prime Minister has a new card to play. “The British people don’t want to spend any more time arguing about Brexit,” she said yesterday. This is the heart of her pitch. Not an attempt to sell the merits of the agreement, such as they are; but rather, the exploitation of Brexit war-weariness. “Enough is enough.” “Get it all over with.” “Let’s move on.” “People are sick and tired of it.” You can see the emotional core of the “campaign”, as May labelled it yesterday, beginning to take shape. She aims to bore her way to victory.
The Prime Minister is trying to assemble a broad coalition big enough to turn MPs round. It will include Leavers who think she’s done enough, and who fear No Brexit if her plan fails. To this audience, May will stress immigration control. A big slice of it is in Labour-held midlands and northern seats. It will also take in Remainers who respect the referendum result, and fear No Deal if the deal falls. To these people, May will push her economic pitch. Quite a bit of it is in the bluer south-east, plus London.
Above all, the Prime Minister will speak to the unengaged punter who has had enough of the whole business. These are what Jeremy Hunt yesterday nicknamed B.O.Bs – those Bored with Brexit. Downing Street will try to paint a picture of a dogged, moderate, determined woman, acting in the national interest, opposed by a band of selfish, opportunistic, Eton-educated men, crazed by fanaticism and (we predict) misogyny. This message will be projected hard to this audience, and to those Tory members whose instinct is to follow their leader.
Against it will be set another coalition. It will take in Remainers who want a second referendum, and want to see May’s plan voted down so they can get it; Leavers who hate its central feature – that the UK will be tied to it without a guaranteed means of escape – and would rather risk no deal; Conservative members who don’t like the look of it, and feel ignored and patronised by successive party leaders; Labour activists manoeuvering for a general election; the DUP; the UKIP remnant; Nicola Sturgeon.
Up for play is the biggest group of voters of all – namely, those who treat everything Ministers say with suspicion because they think all politicians are liars. The Prime Minister will find this demographic to be particularly hard work. All in all, against the B.O.Bs, the Bored of Brexits, will be set the P.A.Ms – People against May, of which there are rather a lot. A prize for the first ConservativeHome reader who spots a Government Minister suggesting that Vladimir Putin is actively engaged in bringing the deal down.
Talking of leaders abroad, one group of people we will presumably hear nothing very much from are the Commission plus the EU27: Jean-Claude Juncker, Angela Merkel, Martin Selmayr, and so on. But this is to fail to take account of Emmanuel Macron, who has helpfully pointed out that the EU expects its access to Britain’s fish to continue post-deal. Take that, David Mundell!
The essence of the case against the agreement is that no country should sign up to a deal it isn’t free to leave; that this one would dynamite the independent trade policy that should be part of Brexit – and that the package threatens the stability of the UK. This time round, there is no Dominic Cummings to weaponise it. Party members will be torn between respect for the leader and dislike of the deal.
So the disparate coalition that opposes the deal has little time to weld itself into a coherent force. Andrew Adonis must somehow find a way of co-ordinating with Boris Johnson, and vice-versa (a tall order). It’s B.O.Bs v P.A.Ms – and in between them, the 650 or so people who will decide.