A lack of agreement about the UK’s future outside the EU will be a major barrier to the ‘no’ campaign
A note, leaked to the Guardian last week, set out some of the detail about what the Prime Minster is asking his fellow EU leaders to deliver in the renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU. As meat began to be put on the bones of the Government’s strategy so did the fracturing of the truce between Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party and their leader.
Most Eurosceptics managed to accede to the notion, that the UK’s relationship with the EU was something that they wanted to change; they were prepared to see what the Prime Minster was able to deliver in a renegotiation. This line will become increasingly difficult to hold as the limited extent of what the Prime Minster thinks is realistically possible, becomes clearer.
Whilst many Eurosceptic groups are still signed up to the renegotiate and then decide line, as the Prime Minister’s strategy emerges, more and more of them are likely to find items on their wish lists excluded from the renegotiation, motivating quiet ‘better off outers’ to start publically supporting an exit.
The larger the proportion of Conservatives who are willing to support the ‘no’ campaign the more effective it is likely to be, but the campaign faces a significant barrier to winning over a majority of the electorate; simply, the lack of an agreed vision of what the UK, outside the EU, would look like.
The PM himself has been accused of playing the politics of fear in this. He would rather present a before and after version of the renegotiation, show an improvement on the status quo, whilst simultaneously banking on the truth that it will be very difficult to persuade voters to back an unknown future rather than a deal.
Despite the effort and energy that has been invested into the Eurosceptic cause over recent decades, it has been unable to clearly articulate a vision of what a UK out of the EU might look like. It is split between those who want to offer membership of the single market, but exit from other aspects of the EU (which in itself could be seen as a modification of the terms of membership rather than an exit) and those who would wish the UK to leave the customs union and try our hand at negotiating bilateral trade deals.
Some see advantages with Norway’s relationship with the EU, which provides for full access to the single market, with the accompanying acceptance of all EU single market rules, or the looser arrangements like Switzerland’s. Others talk about a fully sovereign Parliament allowing the UK pass laws which are in conflict with EU legislation.
Some see the UK’s future as some form of Cowperthwaite era Hong Kong, delivering economic growth through radical deregulation. Others see the exit from the EU as an opportunity to row back from the expansion of free trade that the single market has delivered and end the UK’s involvement in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.
Bringing these competing agendas together, united in opposition to the UK’s continued membership of the EU but divided on almost everything else will be an immensely difficult task to achieve. Dominic Cummings who is likely to a leading figure in the official ‘no’ campaign has admitted in a recent blog post that this is an “almost insuperable task.”
Cummings, whose blog is said to have been the inspiration behind Boris Johnson’s recent suggestion of voting ‘n’o as a tactical way of really voting to stay in the EU, has argued that the ‘no’ campaign isn’t a political party and has no power to negotiate with the EU so should swerve the whole issue of providing detail of the circumstances of the UK’s potential exit. In this he is right; the ‘no’ campaign has to include a broad range of voices with different hopes about the UK’s future. He is also right to argue that a ‘no’ vote wouldn’t lead to the UK leaving the EU straightaway. The terms of exit and the shape of a new relationship would have to be negotiated.
It is unlikely that the Government will agree to the principle of a second referendum in the event of a ‘no’ vote and will argue that the question which will be put is a clear one, asking voters if the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union, rather than an opportunity to unpick the deal.
This means that despite attempts by the ‘no’ campaign to nuance the consequences of a no, voters will face clear binary choice, stay in or leave. The inability to agree on a model of the UK’s future relationship with the EU will remain the biggest barrier to the ‘no’ campaign success and is likely to be a huge advantage to the Prime Minister if he is able to deliver even minor changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU.