Skirmishes in the EU Referendum


Skirmishes don’t win battles: Prussians do. Sometimes

It’s September, so it must be time to get back into the business of the EU referendum. And certainly this week has been full of activity.

Between UKIP going their own way on campaigning, the Electoral Commission getting stuck into the wording of the question and Cameron’s concessions on purdah, one might feel that the tempo has picked up considerably. If you add to that Cameron and Osborne’s trips to other member states then that impression is further reinforced.

However, some caution is also merited. None of these events was unexpected, just as all the outcomes looked very likely. Indeed, the only real surprise might be the speed with which Cameron rolled over on the Electoral Commission’s report. One might almost suspect a plan at work.

Both the wording and the purdah issues have been long known and discussed and were prime exhibits in the ‘it’s a stitch-up’ framing of the ‘no’ camp (the Leavers, as we might have to now call them): the government was (ab)using its position to get every ounce of advantage in reaching its goal of a ‘yes’. That charge looked all the more credible in light of the wanton disregard of the Electoral Commission’s long-standing advice about the wording.

The concession might thus be a calculation that Leavers would complain and that by giving ground at this stage it might be possible to weaken the stitch-up argument, which in turn might build more acceptance of the outcome, rather than just pushing the debate into a new cycle. The new wording seems to have a fairly minimal effect on intentions and still retains some of the status quo effect that so offended the first time around.

This is a generous interpretation, for two reasons. Firstly, the concatenation of events has given the Leavers a bit of a shot in the arm, and a willingness to try and extract more concessions.

Secondly, Cameron has a long track record of lacking a coherent European policy. This week’s concessions have much of the feel of previous manoeuverings – not least the call to have a referendum in the first place – driven by party management needs, rather than any considered reflection on ‘national interests’. ¬†In short, we still seem to be at a point of making the most of the situation, rather than shaping what that situation might be.

Cameron has little option at this stage. He is boxed in by his own timeframe of voting, an uneasy party (mostly) behind him, a European environment (economic and political) outside of his control and an EU system that is structurally very constrained in what it can do. to take just one example, if the vote does end up happening next September, then that means potentially another summer of the refugee crisis shaping the immigration debate, one that many people – not just Nigel Farage – see as inextricably linked to membership. Given the comparative lack of humanity demonstrated by British politicians this summer to those refugees, it’s hard to see how any major shift in attitudes might be achieved before the referendum.

For now, we remain at a stage of skirmishing. Whether matters change once the big guns are wheeled out in the autumn is something of a moot point.