From The Lobby / Apr 2016

From The Lobby / Apr 2016

Anushka Asthana, Political Editor at The Guardian, offers her opinion on recent developments in the EU referendum campaign.

One of the most notable things about this EU referendum has been that the loudest voice in British business has been for Britain to remain. From multinationals based in the City and floated on the stock exchange to the small and medium firms that sign up to FSB (Federation of Small Businesses), a majority have repeatedly concluded that Brexit is too big a risk.

So, too, it seems for Britain's 1.91 million freelancers, who together turn over £109 billion a year.

But what IPSE has now uncovered is that there is a much more complex and nuanced picture unfolding below that headline fact.

The results of IPSE’s membership surveys in the summer of 2015, and then again in March 2016, might strike an alarming note for Remain campaigners.

The first polls had more than three in five (61%) respondents saying they would vote to stay in if a referendum were held tomorrow, while only around a quarter (24%) would vote to leave, with 14% undecided.

It also found that six out of 10 believed trading with the EU would be more difficult following Brexit, while opinion was divided over whether breaking the shackles with the EU would reduce or increase the regulatory burden.

Fast forward into spring this year and things look markedly different.

Now just under half (49%) of IPSE members are planning to vote for Britain to ‘remain’ in the EU, while 41% plan to vote ‘leave’.

Still a solid majority for Remain but a steep decline in support, while the ‘out’ vote has ballooned.

Again, still more think remaining will be best for their business, but a significant minority (34%) think that leaving would be preferable in work terms.

And tellingly the vast majority, over three out of four, think the Prime Minister's hard-fought reforms will have no impact whatsoever – a result that should be seriously disturbing for Downing Street.

After all, the renegotiation was one of the most significant changes between the summer of last year and the spring of this one: the Government's golden opportunity to persuade a Eurosceptic public that their relationship with Brussels could and would be different.

This was a package that David Cameron gloated about, claiming it was the single reason he himself shifted from a position in which he flirted with campaigning for Brexit (publicly at least) to one in which he would vociferously urge Brits to vote  in. And yet that reform appears to have failed to convince voters, not least the UK's army of self-employed workers – a group of entrepreneurial and ambitious folk who are exactly the sort of people the Government wants to claim it is on the side of.

And that apparently unpersuasive renegotiation came amid an energetic campaign for Brexit, which has managed to present itself as the feisty underdog in a David v. Goliath battle. Polls suggest that it is some of the arguments of the Leave side, many linked to the cost of Brussels and the impact of uncontrolled immigration, that have hit home hardest among an electorate that remains largely undecided. They also note that older voters are significantly more likely to turn out, and more likely to back 'out'.

The leavers have been turbo-charged by what they see as an unfair campaign of scaremongering by the Government. The £9.3 million leaflet sent to every home, which one Tory MP told me had left his colleagues "incandescent", was probably the single most effective tool when it came to mobilising the Brexit base. The outers are ready for a fight, with each apocalyptic Remain-side warning (from Education Secretary Nicky Morgan's "lost generation" to Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt's ruined NHS) only firing them up more.

After all, do people really believe it, or will they be more wooed by an ‘out’ campaign that tells them not to listen to Government ministers talking Britain down.

Much of what we've seen explains the shift in the views of IPSE members, but, that said, things have already changed again in this high-stakes, fast-moving campaign.

It's true that many of the warnings of the Remain side were criticised, I suspect successfully, for being over the top and unconvincing, but as they rolled into daily briefings in April I feel that the sheer weight of them may have triggered a tipping point.

The Remainers' best week was probably the third full week in April, which began with a 200-page Treasury report published by the Chancellor, George Osborne, who was flanked by the secretaries of state for energy, work and pensions, and the environment. This hefty study was less difficult for Brexiteers to dismiss as a "dodgy dossier" (though they were right to point out that it didn't assess the impact of remaining in the EU or calculate the potential reduction in regulatory costs of leaving) and it was backed up by the position of international organisations like the IMF.

Its publication resulted in favourable headlines in newspapers that may ultimately support the Remain camp but which have been giving Downing Street a bumpy ride. And if that was to give the 'in' camp a good start to a week, well then President Obama was about to hand them the dream finish. First came the run up to his arrival, including a hugely persuasive intervention by eight former US Treasury secretaries spanning Republican and Democrat governments. They argued that if Britain opted for Brexit it would be diminished on the world stage, with a weaker special relationship, and a hit on the pound that would cause the economy to contract.

Then came Obama and his dramatic warning that Britain would be consigned to the "back of the queue" in any future trade deal with the US.

The comments have triggered a backlash, with presidential candidate Ted Cruz already disagreeing, and furious Brexiteers saying they are even more likely to vote ‘out’ now.

But the truth is they were going to do that anyway. This might secure a high turnout among ‘outers’, but ultimately it's the undecideds who matter most.

Passionate arguments over a high stakes question are raging

Obama is one of the most popular men in the world and it would be churlish for ‘out’ campaigners to deny that his words will have an impact. Even if voters don't like to be threatened, they might start to think that the volume of noise on the Remain side cannot ultimately be ignored.

And all this could also help to mobilise the youth vote, where turnout could prove to be a problem for Remainers.

That said, if Britain votes ‘in’ because it is too nervous to do otherwise, the Government might face something like what happened in Scotland after the independence referendum: the result they want for the British economy but backlash that will have much larger and longer lasting effects on the country's political system.

When Laura Sandys, the Chair of the European Movement UK, came to IPSE to make her case in favour of remaining she tried to make a more positive case, claiming: "The EU doesn't hold us back. There may be red tape that exists as a result of the EU, but there is lots of good legislation that comes out of it, too."

For Brexiteers the answer is to claim that this is not a choice between a risky decision to leave and the status quo, but instead between winning freedoms for Britain or staying in a union that is charging towards ever closer ties and that will, in the future, welcome countries such as Turkey and Albania into the fold.

"The eurozone needs to be pushed closer and closer together, and I'd rather the UK stepped back and let them do that," said Paul Scully, MP for Sutton and Cheam.

“The UK can be more agile if it didn’t have to wait for 26 other countries to agree with things."

Passionate arguments over a high stakes question are raging; the IPSE poll tells us that the British electorate is far from decided and that the outcome of the 23rd June referendum is still anyone's to win. 

By Anushka Asthana, Political Editor at The Guardian