The strange confusion of the Brexit bedfellows

EU-logoSo far, the Brexit campaign has been all about grievance: a mixture of insults and assumed slights. Everywhere a conspiracy, concocted by ‘their masters in Brussels’, but it’s OK because although we can’t seem to negotiate our way to success while part of the EU we’ll magically learn how to do it when on our own, because everyone will be desperate to sell us stuff; besides, we’ll stamp our feet and talk loudly at the dashed foreigners until we get what we want and deserve.

The odd thing is that the Brexiters should be making merry hay. No one knows what the future might bring, so the cause can be made to mean whatever you want it to mean. So Vote Leave can talk up a free trade future (while peddling to the gullible the idea that a vote to leave is a vote ‘to save the NHS’). On the left? Vote leave to protect workers’ wages. (Back in the 1980s the call was to vote to leave to protect Britain’s inefficient manufacturing sector.)

Curiously, the backing of much of the media has not been the blessing the Brexiters might have expected. Coverage has ranged from the ludicrous (the Express splashing on an online poll of…Express readers) to the tawdry (Iain Duncan Smith demanding to be shown the respect he has never shown his opponents). The campaign’s big star (the Mayor of London) has been dogged by poor performances and the idea that he has finally been busted for his naked ambition. And the papers have been far more interested in the personalities and the bust-ups than the issues central to voters.

A strategy that relies on a steady drip of big players declaring for ‘no’ doesn’t sound like a campaign that is rooted in the issues. As hinted above, the fact that the outers can’t decide what the issues are is a bit of a problem, even though it is on another level liberating. The respectable side of the nationalists’ argument – sovereignty – has already been blown out of the Channel. There are few unifying cards left. So be prepared for more grievance.

Meanwhile, the Remain camp has a very specific problem: David Cameron. Cameron has a burden other politicians don’t: thanks to a decision he himself made, he has to fight two wars with very different fronts. To the last, Cameron has made things difficult for himself. He has to be the father of the nation while fighting the Conservatives’ corner during local elections. He may have to rebuild his party after June. That partly explains the new lows at PMQs – and it also suggests that he will continue to make what will seem counter-productive attacks on Labour, even when he badly needs their support. Labour, of course, still scarred by the Scottish independence referendum, will continue to lie low for now.

Three and a half months to go and it’s all to play for. The tipsters and the pollsters still suggest a narrow lead for Remain. But we live in unpredictable times.

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