Written for Prospect Magazine:
The European Union referendum now lies splayed across the political event horizon like a giant jellyfish with which we are all soon going to have to wrestle. History will explain how Nigel Farage, whom I have interviewed for this magazine, tortured the Conservative Party into wasting the nation’s time and energy on what is essentially a Tory in-house disagreement. But this is his dream come true; and what a many-tentacled nightmare it turns out to be.
Make no mistake: in less than a year, Great Britain could be out of the EU and no longer Great or, indeed, Britain. David Cameron’s departure will surely follow Brexit, which will also be followed by Scotland’s attempted split from Britain. The splenetic strain of the Conservative Party will be left running Little England—for that is what we will be—and its business for decades to come will be the treaty-by-treaty renegotiation of our relationship with every other country in the world.
Why are we in danger of sleep walking to Brexit? Two reasons: the “in” campaign and the “out” campaign. The former is tangled, confused and complacent; the latter replete with experience and a fierce vitality.
The “ins” as presently configured, are, of course, bedeviled by macro politics that stall and occlude their purposes… What concessions can the Prime Minister get from the EU? When will he start campaigning? How exactly does all this play into George Osborne’s succession plans for himself? Which cabinet members will campaign to leave the EU? How can they then be part of the government? Where is Boris Johnson in all of this? Theresa May? But let us for a moment take the “ins” at face value.
Their first problem is their ostensible leader. Stuart Rose looks and sounds like the great chief executive of Marks and Spencer he once was—focussed and wiry, he radiates competence, work ethic and a steady mercantile understanding of high-street footfall. He is the opposite of what the “in” campaign needs. At the launch, which I attended, he seemed under-prepared for the political fray and actively to dislike cheerleading, rhetoric or enthusiastic case-making of any kind. He looked and sounded cautious, unwilling or dragooned. His speech was poorly structured, poorly written and poorly delivered—all in a salt-dry voice. Certainly, the “ins” need Stuart Rose on hand to make the many calm and clinching business points. But surely the leader’s job is to promote the case with warm and passionate conviction as well as authenticity. Even if—as with Rose—all he is doing is holding the fort until Cameron and Osborne mobilise.
Then there’s the authority question. Will Straw, the “in” campaign’s Executive Director, might one day be a force for good in the country. He’s decent, willing and impossible to dislike. But he looks and sounds out of his depth. At a recent debate, the first between the campaign leaders, he was properly pitted against Dominic Cummings, the battle-hungry director of what will surely become the main “out” (“Vote Leave”) campaign. This was Straw’s first real public test. He did not do well. As soon as the debate opened to questions, it became clear to the audience that Straw was not across the detail. He was unable, for example, to counter the demonstrably false figure of the “out” side that it costs £55m a day to keep us in Europe and instead the chair had to do it for him; and then—staggeringly—he had not even heard of the Rotterdam Effect.
What’s the Rotterdam Effect I hear you cry?