Pete Digger: Why is the campaign for Brexit so poor?
There are five (and a half) elements that have led to this toe-curlingly awful Out effort.
It is the moment that many of them have spent over forty years preparing and waiting for. In many cases, it is the fulfilment of a life-long ambition.
After a generation of the dastardly European Union telling us what to do and what to think, those committed to seeing the UK leave the EU finally have – in the form of the forthcoming referendum - the opportunity to demonstrate just how much better off we will all be when we are relieved of the shackles of membership.
All the economic data that makes the case for Brexit unarguable; all the regulations that have impeded our everyday lives without our even realising it; the case against the free movement of people; the arguments about Parliament no longer being sovereign; and the malicious impact of unelected bureaucrats dictating our justice system to citizens unaware that this was happening; all this and much more besides was to be unleashed by a movement run by the greatest and most successful campaigners our public affairs industry has ever seen and led by politicians ‘who can reach parts of the electorate that others can’t reach.’
Which begs just one question. What the bloody hell has gone wrong?
Let’s not beat it about the bush, the campaign for Brexit has, so far, been toe-curlingly, embarrassingly, awful.
Against it, Michael Foot’s 1983 bid for Downing Street looks like a masterclass in deft campaign management. Miliband’s similar effort in 2015 appears almost Obama-esque in its organisational dexterity. The message discipline in the current Parliamentary Labour Party is impressive by comparison.
So, what are the elements that have led to this distinctly lacklustre campaign?
First, and most obviously, there were two camps bidding to be the official ‘leave’ campaign. They were somewhat divided as to the reasons why they were in favour of Brexit. The result was that, until now, the public have been presented with what occasionally appeared to be a squabbling rabble. Expect message discipline to improve now that the official designation has been resolved.
Second, and related to the first, is no obvious leader of the Leave camp. An array of spokespeople are fielded, but no one to shadow Cameron’s obvious leadership of Remain.
Third, whilst convinced that they have all the best tunes, the campaign is struggling to get a running order. The fundamentals of a campaign – a grid, logistical strategy and so on – are currently missing. Instead Remain has been able to set the agenda and even when their message – such as the Treasury case for Remain – comes under sustained attack, the only message that gets any cut through is that which the Government, rather than its opponents, want to see.
Fourth, a technocratic focus on process has driven much of Brexit’s tactics so far. To say this is bizarre would be an understatement. Where one would expect to see a picture of the sunlit uplands of a post-Brexit UK, we instead have arguments about how much the Government is spending on its information campaign. This means that the undecided public hear one thing. That the Government is promoting a positive message for Remain and its opponents have nothing substantive to counter it with.
This reveals a fifth and most surprising weakness. Brexit has failed to recruit any genuinely effective campaigners. At every turn – the Government publication of a public information leaflet, the launch of Treasury data on the cost of Brexit, the need to register a website, all appear to catch the Brexit team off guard.
How can this be? A google search would have revealed that the Government has run public information campaigns in each and every previous referendum, and would have enabled Brexit to prepare and pre-empt this inevitable feature.
Similarly, it surely cannot have come as a surprise that the Treasury has launched data on the cost of Brexit? This should have been met with equally robust data ‘proving’ those august civil servants wrong. Instead we get complaints straight from the playground about it ‘not being fair’.
And point five and half is that the unlikely bedfellows masterminding the campaign for Brexit have generally cut their teeth defending the status quo in the past and are struggling to achieve coherence running a campaign for change.
Overall it seems that the Brexit campaign believed that they were the status quo, that when the public saw the brilliance of their campaign about EU rules preventing the recycling of tea bags and other epic made up facts, they would automatically think that the case for Brexit had been made.
And so it is that Obama’s warning about the risks of Brexit has dominated the headlines for a week, despite it being a warning he hasn’t yet made – because the Brexiters have given oxygen to it.
The cost of Brexit is analysed in detail because the Brexiters have complained so bitterly. Leaving the public with but one conclusion. That there would be a cost.
The Brexiters may go on to win their campaign to take the UK out of the EU. But they will have to move at speed to transform their campaign if they are to have any chance of doing so.
Pete Digger is a director at MHP Communications. This article first appeared on the MHP blog.