Britain’s membership of the EU is one of the most important features of British economic policy. However, by the time of the next General Election in 2020 it could be a thing of the past. Thanks to the proposed referendum on membership, Britain could commence with so called ‘Brexit’ before the end of 2017.
Many in London’s business community still see Brexit as far-fetched. They are joined in this view by most economists, US presidents and, it seems, members of the Stronger In campaign. However, this is the same Britain where the conventional wisdom was until recently that the Scottish referendum would shut the secessionists up forever, that Cameron could not win the General Election on his own and that Jeremy Corbyn had no chance of winning the Labour leadership. It isn’t just the pollsters that have been getting it wrong in recent years. The entire body politic has been making a series of assumptions that have proved profoundly misplaced. In the modern British polity – you can never say never.
Entering the fray have been no fewer than two “better off out” campaigns as well as the “Stronger In” campaign. Stronger In seems content to bask in its slight opinion poll lead, overwhelming support from the political establishment, and the business community. However, there are all the signs of considerable complacency. Perhaps the knowledge that in the last two referenda voters stuck with the status quo has helped to fuel this notion. Should Stronger In continue to rest on their laurels then people should not be surprised to wake up to a Britain outside the EU.
As MRM’s Jansev Jemal has commented before, opinion polls are sometimes not worth the paper they are no longer printed on. Since the General Election, most opinion polls have shown Stronger In ahead, with other polls showing Leave with the edge. With 10 – 20% of the electorate undecided, this could easily go either way. Moreover, the half-forgotten referendum on the Alternative Vote shows that no matter how far one side might be leading in the polls, a well-executed campaign by the other side can turn a resounding lead into a brutal rout.
For Stronger In, uncertainty in polls is compounded by their own weaknesses. It looks like the In messages are going to be economic stability, international influence and security. In the last few months the EU has seen a major fiscal policy crisis in Greece, had to respond to increasingly aggressive moves by Russia into Syria, and has responded to a historic refugee crisis which forced the partial abandonment of the free movement Schengen agreement. These, or other issues, could come to the boil again before the referendum, and the campaigns can have no idea how voters will respond.
In contrast, the Leave campaign are taking nothing for granted. They are even trying their best to brand the Stronger In campaign BSE after the cattle epidemic and suggesting that they are a Brussels front. This campaign isn’t going to get nasty. It is already very nasty and it is going to get more divisive as the referendum date approaches. You can’t fault either the Leave.eu campaign or Vote Leave for a lack of passion.
As a sleepy Britain shambles down the staircase towards the front door there is always a chance that it will wake up somewhere in the hallway in its pyjamas. However, there is always the possibility that it might be caught, like Cherie Blair, staring out blearily eyed at the word’s media. Make no mistake, Brexit will not be a delivery of a bunch of roses. Depending on the attitude European Union member states might take it may feel a lot more like Boris Johnson, returning from a run with the media scrum, to find his estranged wife had locked him out.
Havard Hughes & Robin McGhee