This time round, the audience will be different. In 2016, it was voters. Within less than a month, if all goes to plan, it will be Conservative MPs. But the strategy is very much the same. It is to utilise institutional and celebrity power to sell a Brexit deal, just as it was deployed to sell David Cameron’s renegotiation and a Remain vote, or to try.
The BBC has the details. These contain names one would expect, such as Andy Street, the CBI, and City UK. There are also people who might prove counter-productive, especially since Tory MPs would be the key demographic. Anything that Leo Varadkar thinks is good for Ireland isn’t necessarily good for the United Kingdom – or at that’s what some Brexiteer MPs will think, anyway. But he’s on the list, as is Andy Burnham, another name that won’t necessarily swing the J Alfred Prufrock MPs of this world.
Then there are other names that are more of a mystery. Why would Team May expect Mark Littlewood and the IEA to line up behind any deal? After all, their star recent signing, Shanker Singham, is opposed to customs union membership. ConservativeHome also has its moment in the sun, since our columnist Henry Newman, the director of Open Europe, is also listed. All in all, the document has the air of an early draft. Number Ten is denying its authenticity altogether. None the less, someone, somewhere has been very keen to leak it.
The flip side of the positives would be the negatives: in the event of a deal, Number Ten will hope that the above stress the downside of rejecting a deal – the uncertainties of No Deal. It would in effect be co-ordinating Project Fear Three. We all remember Project Fear One from the EU referendum. We are currently seeing Project Fear Two, of which Project Fear Three would be an iteration. The irony is that there is good reason to be concerned about No Deal. But the boy may have cried “Wolf” at least once too often.
As the failure of Cameron’s plan indicates. Its best-known face was Barack Obama, deputed to say that, in the event of a Brexit vote, Britain would go to “the back of queue” for any trade deal with America. “The purveyors of the conventional wisdom decreed that it could be a knockout blow for the Leave campaign. And yet it was not,” writes Tim Shipman in All Out War. At Vote Leave headquarters, Dominic Cummings “walked into the main campaign war room and announced: ‘This will have no effect’ “. He was right.
Intriguingly, the leaked document’s timetable is much the same as that we tentatively anticipated on Monday – ” ‘A moment of decisive progress’ will be announced this Thursday. Raab to announce,” it declares. (Historical footnote: that’s the same Dominic Raab who said, in the wake of Obama’s intervention, that “I don’t think the British people will be blackmailed by a lame duck US President”.)
Number Ten would do better to put any deal that the Cabinet agrees to Conservative MPs straight-up, without any varnish. An early reading of America’s mid-term elections results, coming in as we write, is that the Republicans have done better than expected. Donald Trump’s staying power is a reminder that the era of New Labour-type spin is dead and buried.