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Dead hand of Downing Street lost referendum

by Hugo Dixon | 21.10.2016

Craig Oliver’s Brexit book is not meant to expose David Cameron’s strategic errors. The former prime minister’s director of politics and communications is at pains to defend his boss’s actions and his own. But his fly-on-the-wall account of the campaign – Unleashing Demons – inadvertently rams home how the dead hand of Downing Street lost the referendum.

Of course, Jeremy Corbyn’s faint praise for the EU was also to blame. So were the lies of the Leave camp, the hostility of much of the press and the BBC’s failure to challenge the Leave side’s arguments adequately. But it was Cameron who called the referendum and Cameron who was the ultimate master strategist of the Remain camp.

Seven bad errors jump out of the book’s pages.

1. Unleashing the referendum demon

Oliver argues that there was no way of avoiding the issue because Tory MPs were rebelling and UKIP was growing as a political force. If Cameron hadn’t promised a vote, “he would have been deposed”.

In other words, the former premier made a Faustian pact to stay in Downing Street and keep right wing nationalists happy. But, as with any deal with the devil, Cameron ultimately had to deliver his side of the bargain. He himself had some glimpses of the troubles ahead. When asked by Oliver in 2015 if he could see any reason not to hold a referendum, he replied: “You could unleash demons of which ye know not.”

There was nothing noble about putting his own interests and those of the Tory party ahead of the country’s. It’s not even certain that Cameron would have been kicked out if he’d taken a different line, say that there would only be a referendum if the voters were clamouring for one – which they weren’t. What’s more, it’s not as though Cameron’s ploy worked: when he lost, he had to resign and he may go down in history as one of our worst prime ministers.

2. Renegotiation charade

Cameron’s next error was to pretend that he would call for Britain to quit the EU if he couldn’t renegotiate our terms of membership satisfactorily. This fooled neither the voters, who saw through the dishonesty, nor our EU partners, who spotted the bluff.

What this charade meant was that the prime minister couldn’t campaign for Remain during the autumn and winter of last year, when the Leave camp was firing its first salvoes. It also meant he was skewered by questions on the lines of: “How could it be so disastrous to leave the EU when only a few months ago you were saying ‘I rule nothing out’?”

Oliver makes clear there was never any realistic chance that Cameron would back Leave. He also reveals that the prime minister himself knew how years of endless Brussels-bashing was going to make for a tough campaign: “His analysis is that everyone, including him, has traded on having a go at ‘Europe’ for years.”

The honest approach would have been for Cameron to say, as soon as he promised the referendum, that he believed we were better off in the EU, and to explain why. This would also have been smart as he would then have had three years instead of four months to turn around public opinion.

He could still have called on the EU to reform. In fact, by working on such an agenda for three years and by taking a constructive rather than a confrontational approach to our EU partners, he probably would have achieved more.

3. Stronger In takeover

The official Remain campaign, Stronger In, was weak. Cameron therefore decided to bolster it by injecting his own team, led by Oliver, into it. Before the prime minister had come out for “in”, his director of communications was working out how his team would “dock” with the Stronger In crowd. As the campaign progressed, Oliver became the organisation’s shadow director, telling it what to do at critical points.

This meant that Downing Street’s priorities became the Remain camp’s priorities. But what it thought was good for Cameron was not good for Britain.

4. Avoiding blue-on-blue rebuttal

Downing Street was anxious to avoid “blue-on-blue” attacks – Tories going head-to-head with one another. According to Oliver, this was to avoid a Tory psychodrama. “The media would love it and it would blot out almost every other story,” he told me at a dinner recounted in his book, when I advocated stronger rebuttal of the lies being spewed out by Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.

If Cameron had played the man not the ball, such attacks would have been counterproductive. But the failure to squish Gove when he said we send £350 million a week to the EU or that Turkey was scheduled to join the EU in 2020 was a terrible error. Vote Leave kept shooting balls into the wide open goal.

Cameron did eventually slap down Penny Mordaunt’s erroneous statement that we don’t have a veto on Turkey joining the EU. But he was taking out a minor figure who wasn’t even in the cabinet, not one of the big beasts. It was too little, too late.

What’s more, there was another motivation behind former prime minister’s obsession with avoiding blue-on-blue attacks. As Oliver writes at one point: “The real danger .. is the way so much poison is being pumped into the party’s bloodstream. How will it be survivable when the referendum is done?”

If Downing Street hadn’t “docked” with Stronger In, it wouldn’t have been so bad. The official campaign could itself have gone after Vote Leave’s errors hammer and tongs, rather than “bringing a spoon to a knife fight” as Peter Mandelson put it. As it was, Oliver neutered Stronger In – at one point pulling a hard-hitting poster that showed Johnson in Nigel Farage’s pocket.

5. No positive agenda

Oliver was a key figure in enforcing Cameron’s Project Fear strategy. While there was nothing wrong in pointing out the risks of quitting the EU, the message should have been mixed with a positive agenda about how Britain in the EU could help lead Europe, create the jobs of the future, stand up to Vladimir Putin, combat terrorism, fight global warming and so forth.

Oliver was having none of this. At one point, he rounds on colleagues pushing a positive line: “I’m sorry. I’m totally confused. We’ve just all been talking about our message being about risk and the economy, how we need to keep hammering it – and now we are talking about handing over one of our last days to the positive case for the EU.”

Maybe, but what about the young, who needed to be enthused to get out to vote in big numbers? What about pro-Europeans who needed to be galvanised to spread the word? What about many Labour voters who weren’t that moved by warnings of economic gloom when they didn’t think they had much to lose in the first place?

Gordon Brown kept pushing this line, but he found it hard to get airtime. The former Labour prime minister struggled to get on the “grid” that Oliver used to determine who should be promoted to speak on what topics on what days. Once when Brown supposedly had a clear day to make his case, he was drowned out by George Osborne saying Brexit would cause house prices to fall.

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6. World War Three

Cameron did try another promising line – that leaving the EU would be bad for security. Somehow the media interpreted him as saying that quitting would trigger World War Three. This was, as Oliver says, a “gross misinterpretation” of what he actually said.

But the former director of communications doesn’t provide any insight into how the press made such an error. We are not told if Downing Street spun the speech in advance. Nor does Oliver say if he complained after the event about how the prime minister’s words were twisted – as he should have unless his team was itself partly responsible for the misinterpretation – whereas his book is full of complaints he made to the media on other occasions.

After the misfire on “World War Three”, Cameron didn’t try to argue seriously again that quitting the EU would be bad for our security and our global influence. This was another error. He was left with the one-trick pony – Project Fear – which eventually proved a turn-off to some voters.

7. Mute on migration

Cameron’s final strategic error was to be mum on migration – the Leave camp’s strongest card. His repeated promises to cut net migration to the tens of thousands meant he had zero credibility on the topic. As Oliver puts it: “What can we say on immigration/freedom of movement that will not be met with derision?”

But others could have spoken up. They could have said that the Leave camp’s migration promises were just as false as Cameron’s. They could have pointed out that public services were struggling because of Tory cuts not migration – as, indeed, Labour’s Angela Eagle wanted to in one of the set-piece TV debates before Oliver told her not to.

They could also have said that the government should channel money to those communities struggling with spikes in migration. When Oliver hears that Brown plans to talk about such a scheme, he tells us: “I roll my eyes – with two weeks to go, are we seriously about to go out there with a brand new policy on immigration?” When I read this passage, I rolled my eyes. Was Cameron’s director of communications really unaware that Conservative’s election manifesto contained just such a pledge? 

The book is full of eye-rolling passages. This was a referendum that Cameron should never have called – and a vote he still could have won if he’d made smarter strategic choices.

Hugo Dixon is co-founder of CommonGround, one of the 12 organisations backing the #WriteToRemain campaign, as well as editor-in-chief of InFacts.

Edited by Geert Linnebank

5 Responses to “Dead hand of Downing Street lost referendum”

  • 8. An eighth, though this one may not emerge explicitly in Oliver.
    Cameron put it out that ““This is your decision. The government will implement what you decide”. The word ‘decide’ was ill-advised for a Prime Minister who took it be in the nation’s interest to remain in the EU and who should surely have known that there was a possibility of the referendum campaign being dishonest.
    As we know, Article 50 has: 1. Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements. 2. A Member State which decides to withdraw shall notify the European Council of its intention.
    Assuming that a decision puts an intention in place, 1. and 2. entail that notification on the part of the State can be automatic when a decision is reached.
    If Cameron had refrained from using the word ‘decide’, then given the advisory character of referendums, it would now be much easier to argue that the UK’s constitutional requirements include the requirement of a vote on the matter in Parliament. If there could be such a vote, then even if it were lost, the flawed character of the referendum campaign could be made out in both Houses of Parliament.
    Well, we’ll soon see what the High Court says about this. But there should have been open Parliamentary debate months ago, and a debate in which it could not be said that anyone who drew attention to the flawed character of the campaign spoke against democracy.
    When May first said that Brexit means Brexit, she presumably took Brexit to mean whatever the electorate had been led to believe that Brexit means. Cameron for his own part ensured that the discrepancy between what Brexit will actually mean and what the electorate were led to believe it would mean can never be out in the open.

  • A brilliant analysis of the disastrous campaign led by Cameron’s government. The tragedy is that the Remain campaign did not build its communication around the basic message on the EU put over by Gordon Brown in his video ” Lead Europe not Leave it “.
    That message said it all. It put the creation of the European movement into its historical context , and explained that the EU was not only about the Single Market. It was also very inspiring. The tragic failure of the government’s campaign is however proof once more that for so many in the UK, including obviously at the highest levels of government, it is not understand that the EU is anything more than just an economic body. Hence the almost exclusive emphasis during the campaign on the economic/financial benefits of the EU. When will the UK understand why the EU exists at all?

    • Absolutely! From memory the UK’s euroscepticism has always been an irrational allergy. It’s an allergy because Brexiteers can’t help their urge to scratch their EU itch for no good reason. And it’s irrational because they can seldom resist criticising the EU for vague defects that have little to do with the EU in fact. In addition, they claim benefits for leaving that are either unattainable or purely speculative or ones that they will never be able to support with reliable facts.
      The UK has been the most enthusiastic Member State (MS) about the Single Market. The Single Market is an outward sign of an inward ambition, namely a bold experiment in collaborative regional government. Like most experiments the EU has its shortcomings for which the UK, as one of the largest MS, must bear its fair share of responsibility. For most MS, the EU Project comes as a whole, hence the refusal of the Institutions to entertain cherry-picking and bespoke agreements with the UK.
      I don’t think there’s much evidence of the UK ever having understood the Project, and I doubt if Brexit will help the British people understand the alarming penalty they will pay for leaving it. The dramatic decline in the value of sterling due to Brexit is just the beginning of the UK’s secular decline to unknowable depths.

  • Spot on David.
    The answer to your last question, not so rethorical as it may seem, is
    1 the creation of a clear honest, factual information flow about the E.U. for educational puposes, devoid of any propaganda.
    2 a legal obligation for the press to rectify misrepresentations, untruths or factual mistakes in their writings, within days rather than weeks or not at all.
    3 for politicians and newspapers to refer to the EU as just that, EU, and not Brussels or Europe, which have taken on a strong flavour of “them and us” in any discussion. After all Europe is still the only proper name of a continent, not a political or economic ensemble.
    Otherwise, I repeat the words of a longtime, very Anglofile Dutch friend of mine, spoken during a visit to these islands in 1978:
    England is not another world. It is another planet!
    After almost 40 years he might still have agreed today if he were alive.

  • Could you talk a little more about how we know a positive EU message would have been more effective. I’m interested because Dominic Cummings has said he thinks that’s not the case, and also a highly regarded political campaigner who favoured staying in also said this. The latter’s view was that people were saying this because a) people always say negative campaigning doesn’t work when it does, and b) people may be assuming that because X didn’t work, they should have done Y – when in fact they perhaps should have done X better/differently.
    I’m also puzzled because the result was so close – it only needed to swing a few percentage points, which seems to suggests to me that incremental tactical and operational improvements might have been enough.
    Have you seen any estimates on the size of the moveable middle in the electorate, and do you know what the focus groups showed – I mean did they suggest in the first place that positive campaigning would work?
    Maybe someone’s done the analysis on this, but I’m not sure where to find it.