Latest ruse to pass May’s deal? Just ignore all the bad bits

by Sam Ashworth-Hayes | 15.04.2019

Henry Newman, director of the Open Europe think tank, has succeeded where the prime minister, the government machine, several newspapers and legions of lobbyists have failed: he has found a way to get people backing Theresa May’s deal.

The secret is to “explain it better”, according to a rather uncritical Sunday Times report of polling commissioned by the think tank. What this means in reality is the deal’s benefits should be emphasised and absolutely no one else can be allowed to point out the flaws and trade-offs, or ask how May intends to overcome them. Given the febrile atmosphere inside Parliament and the Conservative party right now, this ought to be a cinch.

The source poll was conducted for Open Europe by Hanbury Strategy – on whom more later – and purports to show that May’s deal is stunningly popular when voters are told the benefits it offers. The margins in favour are vast: 49% overall backing the deal against 24% against, and an even better performance among Leavers and Conservatives.

But now look at the question they asked:

“The UK and EU have reached agreement on the terms of a deal which would allow the UK to leave the EU, while protecting the rights of UK nationals in the EU and EU nationals in the UK, guaranteeing the Irish border stays open, and providing tariff-free trade with Europe.

“If you had to choose, would you prefer MPs voted for the deal or not?”

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No mention of the trade-offs. No mention of the backstop handing over regulation of large chunks of the Northern Irish economy to Brussels. Or how the backstop could weaken our own Union. No mention of the divorce bill or future trading arrangements. And there’s nothing said about services – some 80% of our economy – or our level of access to the single market other than a statement about tariffs.

This question presents a woolly, vague idea of some benefits while giving no information about the downsides. It would be surprising if people weren’t positively disposed towards it.

It’s disappointing Open Europe has chosen to publish this result as though it’s informative. It tells us nothing about the baseline level of support for the deal. It doesn’t tell us what people think about it when they are well informed. It doesn’t even tell us what the best strategy for promoting the deal is, given that this pollyanna-ish vision is unlikely to hold up to outside scrutiny.

It’s disappointing, but it isn’t surprising. Open Europe was once described by the Economist’s Charlemagne column as “the Eurosceptic group that controls British coverage of the EU”. Henry Newman has opened a small one-man front in favour of May’s deal. Hanbury Strategy, which the Guardian describes as “focusing on Brexit issues”, was co-founded by Paul Stephenson. He was in turn both the former director of communications for Vote Leave, and – according to what appears to be his LinkedIn profile – once the head of research for Open Europe.

To recap: a eurosceptic think tank, with a director who backs the deal, commissioned a poll from a company co-founded by a former Vote Leave staffer, gave respondents one-sided information, and found that the deal is popular. Quelle surprise.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe