The “In” campaign in Britain’s looming referendum on membership of the European Union launched today.
It’s called “Britain Stronger in Europe,” and it follows the launch of anti-EU groups “Vote Leave” and “Leave.EU.” The official date of the referendum hasn’t been announced, but it will take place before the end of 2017.
Britain Stronger in Europe unleashed both barrels over the weekend, with a barrage of announcements about their high-profile supporters.
Firstly Sir Stuart Rose was selected as the chairman of the official pro-EU campaign. At first glance, this seems like a pretty sensible decision. As former CEO at Marks & Spencer, Rose seems like a solid choice. It’s a well-known and respected British retail brand.
What’s more, he’s a Conservative peer. From the perspective of the campaign to stay in the EU, the more it looks like their approach is cross-party, while the Out campaign is a fringe grouping of hard-right Tories and UKIP, the better.
But on second look, things don’t look so great for the choice of Sir Stuart. Here’s the Independent, with an old quote from him that was immediately found after his appointment:
Two years ago the Conservative peer said he had little sympathy with people who complained that jobs were being taken by workers from Bulgaria and Romania who were prepared to work for less money. “I’m a free-market economist; we operate in a free market,” he told Sky News. “If these people want to come here, and work the hours they are prepared to work for the wages they are prepared to work for, then so be it.”
Any anti-EU campaign’s most potent argument will be on immigration — it tops most lists of political issues that British people care about most. Picking a chairman who’s directly linked his own support for the EU to his comfort with European migrants coming into the UK and competing with low-paid British workers is poisonous.
I strongly suspect you’ll see the “so be it” quote featured on Out campaign posters before the referendum is over.
The second big piece of news from the campaign is that they have signed up former Prime Ministers John Major, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to help make the argument for remaining in the EU.
Again, on the surface this seems pretty sensible. Staying in is the status quo, which usually has an advantage in any referendum. The UK’s three surviving ex-Prime Ministers will be on one side, and the Out campaign will have no-one with the same credentials.
But for different reasons, strategists for the Out campaign will be hoping that Tony Blair in particular takes a very active role in the coming campaign. Because he’s extremely unpopular.
Blair’s poll ratings are abysmal. There’s very little way of spinning them. He’s got the 2,118th worst positivity rating of 2,210 figures tracked by YouGov. Amazingly, he’s unpopular on both the left and the right.
Here are the most often-shared opinions about Blair, according to YouGov:
More people used the phrase “war criminal” to describe Blair than described him as a good speaker, intelligent, a leader, charismatic and articulate all put together.
There’s further YouGov data here that shows pretty much the same thing — signing up John Major may have been a good idea for the In campaign, because of his strong support among Conservative voters. But Blair does extremely poorly among every demographic.
When asked whether “getting support from the following politicians would be an asset or a liability” in an electoral campaign, Blair gets a net negative score of minus 47%, suggesting he’s a major liability.
So whatever you think of Blair and his legacy, his reputation is pretty clear.
The In campaign is starting off the campaign on the front foot. Most polls show a lead for staying in the EU, especially on renegotiated terms, precisely what Prime Minister David Cameron is proposing.
But we’ve seen how public opinion can turn quite rapidly in the direction of the underdog — in Scotland’s 2014 independence referendum, the “In” side regularly had a polling lead of 20 points or more a year out from the vote. In the French European treaty referendum in 2005, early support in opinion polls and the backing of major political parties still ended in failure for the pro-treaty campaign.
Missteps could still do a lot of damage to the pro-EU campaign, and the In campaign’s recent decisions could give a lot of ammunition to pro-Brexit activists.
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