The ‘Brexit’ debate has taken off in the UK in the ten days since David Cameron got his new deal at February’s European Council summit, with daily media coverage and social media from both sides swinging into gear. How the debate, and the polls, will evolve over the coming four months is unclear but, Kirsty Hughes explains, so far various paradoxes are emerging.
1. Mainly an intra-government debate
To all appearances, media coverage to date suggests that the Brexit debate is essentially only a debate between two different camps in the Conservative government: a debate between mild eurosceptics in the British cabinet, including the Prime Minister, against a half dozen strong eurosceptics also in the cabinet.
The arguments between these two camps have already covered: conflicting views over the economic costs and benefits of EU membership, the legally-binding nature of Cameron’s EU renegotiation, how long it would take to establish a new UK-EU relationship after Brexit, whether there could be a second referendum, and an on-going row over whether Brexit-supporting ministers can see government papers pertaining to the referendum. Other debates are rumbling on about how long Cameron will stay as Tory leader, even in the event of a vote to stay in the EU.
The fact that this is a debate concerning the whole of the UK – all political parties and the UK public – is not one that is obvious from media coverage so far. Somewhat bizarrely, Cameron is also reported to be asking big business and big banks to hold back from expressing their support too strongly.
2. Labour voters are vital but Corbyn is absent
While Tory voters are, according to polls, broadly split on staying in or leaving the EU, Labour voters are more strongly in favour at a level of around 60%, as are the much smaller number of Liberal-Democrat supporters. Keeping Labour voters’ support and getting them to turn out on the day (so far polls suggest ‘leave’ voters are more likely to turn out) is crucial for the ‘remain’ side to prevail on 23rd June.
Yet Labour’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been more notable by his absence from the debate so far than for any strongly argued speeches in favour of the EU. When Corbyn does comment, it seems so far to be more to criticise Cameron than to make strong pro-EU statements.
Labour has launched its own pro-EU campaign led by former cabinet minister Alan Johnson, but he has so far had rather little presence in the media. While Labour grassroots supporters are already campaigning, whether Corbyn will start to make a strong case for Europe – having long been seen as more eurosceptic than supportive – is an open question. Cameron, meanwhile, is reportedly wondering how and whether to make a pitch to Labour supporters on the EU.
3. Only the Scottish leader is making a genuinely European argument
Ironically, in Corbyn’s absence, the only really visible opposition leader making the pro-EU argument for the UK is the pro-independence Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
In a wide-ranging speech on 29th February, Sturgeon showed that she is a genuine European, concerned about the big challenges facing the EU, from the failed and failing austerity policies of the eurozone to the lack of solidarity, compassion and strategic leadership over the refugee crisis. Sturgeon’s speech combined a constructive critique of the current EU crisis with a set of social, economic and political reasons for staying in the EU.
It was the sort of speech that Cameron will not give, determined as he is to focus on the ‘special treatment’ he got for the UK, and on the economic case for remaining in. It was also the sort of speech Corbyn should give but seems unwilling and unable to.
4. The ‘Out’ side have momentum but are split
The opinion polls range from significant leads for the ‘remain’ camp – especially in phone rather than internet polls – to many suggesting the two sides are very close; the most recent poll of polls from NatCen puts it at 51% for remaining in, 49% for Brexit.
The ‘out’ side, as has been widely acknowledged, tend to have more passion and emotion. Yet for now, the ‘leave’ side remains split into two main camps: ‘Leave.EU’ supported by UKIP leader Nigel Farage, and ‘Vote Leave’, supported by UKIP’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, and also by Boris Johnson amongst other Tories.
Whether these two sides will resolve their split, and which will be recognised by the Electoral Commission as the lead campaign is unclear. The split will undermine coherence in ‘leave’ arguments and campaigning, though how much this will impact on the polls is unclear.
5. The Referendum won’t resolve Tory splits over the EU
It is widely acknowledged that David Cameron called the referendum in an attempt to handle the continuing split in the Tory party over Europe. Yet the referendum, whatever the outcome, looks like doing no such thing.
A vote to leave would probably be quite close and, in the face of ‘remain’ votes in Scotland, Northern Ireland and possibly Wales, would unleash a political and constitutional crisis across the UK. Whether the Tory party would split at this point is an open question. A vote to ‘remain’, unless it is of the order of 60%:40%, is unlikely to resolve Tory divisions on the matter and will leave an embittered party and a split cabinet.
6. Only the SNP are visibly contingency-planning for Brexit, yet ‘indyref2’ is not guaranteed
With a Brexit vote a possibility, contingency planning – both for the immediate days after such a vote and for the months ahead – would seem vital. Yet any such planning is clearly being kept closely under wraps for now, and civil servants appear to have been told not to do any such planning.
Nicola Sturgeon has said a ‘leave’ vote would make a second independence referendum, ‘indyref2’, almost a certainty, and it is clear the SNP are doing some behind-closed-doors strategising. Yet whether the SNP moves rapidly to a second referendum in such circumstances will depend on how much the polls shift towards support for independence, and on the evolution of the resulting political crisis in the UK after a Brexit vote.
For now, what Cameron or Corbyn would do in the face of a Brexit vote is quite unknown. Cameron would surely have to resign, opening the question both of who would be the new Tory leader, and what sort of future relations with the EU the Tories would argue for. Corbyn – and Labour – will also need to have a political position on what comes next, including on Scottish independence, yet if such planning is under way inside Labour, it is well hidden.
An evolving debate
The UK referendum debate has several months to go. If the paradoxes outlined here remain, it will be a debate where pro-EU political, rather than economic, arguments get little attention, and it will be a debate dominated by a split governing party with Labour struggling to be heard. Even a split ‘leave’ side can only benefit from most of these paradoxes.
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Kirsty Hughes is Associate Fellow of Friends of Europe. She has worked at a number of leading European think tanks and has published extensively on European and international politics including books, reports and as a journalist. She was also a senior political adviser in the European Commission, head of advocacy for Oxfam, and CEO at Index on Censorship.
This piece first appeared on Friends of Europe.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.