The ‘Vote Leave’ campaign has already assembled a crack team of some of the best political operatives in the business. In some ways, the campaign represents a mini reunion of the last time a UK-wide referendum was held, when ‘No To AV’ dished out a comprehensive beating to supporters of electoral reform.
Matthew Elliott masterminded that campaign and is spearheading the Leave campaign. Elliott is one of the best strategic minds in politics, driving the Taxpayers’ Alliance to become the most influential campaign group in the country, before masterminding the landslide win for ‘No To AV’, turning an early poll deficit into a win by 35%. He also laid the framework for the ‘Leave’ campaign with the ‘Business For Britain’ organisation, which helped challenge the perception that all businesses are pro EU. Elliott is masterful at creating in creating memorable and powerful campaign themes that reach well beyond the Westminster bubble. His image during the AV campaign of a horse coming third in the Grand National actually winning the race was one example of his ability to pack a punch with his political campaigning. Matthew Elliott is not a man who is used to losing campaigns and he’s determined not to lose this one.
Some of the strategic and media brains behind the ‘No To AV’ campaign, such as Stephen Parkinson, have also returned to the fray for the EU campaign. Parkinson’s appointment is particularly interesting, given that he has left his role as trusted SpAd to Theresa May in order to work on the campaign. Shrewd and politically canny, Parkinson has already made a noticeable impact on the campaign and his appointment has set Westminster tongues wagging about which side the Home Secretary will campaign for during the campaign. Her Conservative conference speech, making clear that her central concern was controlling immigration, also had commentators speculating that she would be a leading figure in the ‘Leave’ campaign.
Aside from Parkinson, the campaign also includes some of the most respected (and one of the most controversial) SpAds from the coalition years. Dominic Cummings acted as a force of nature in helping Michael Gove drive through his education reforms, creating enemies in Downing Street in the process (Cummings always described the Prime Minister as “uber pundit” in his post resignation blogs). He has experience of fighting campaigns on the EU, having been campaign director for Business for Sterling between 1999 and 2002, which made a contribution (alongside Gordon Brown’s dedicated opposition) to dissuading Tony Blair from joining the Euro. Cummings is determined and utterly results focussed and represents a major challenge for the ‘Remain’ campaign.
Vote Leave also boasts a strong communications arm. Paul Stephenson, widely regarded as one of the most effective media SpAds when at the DfT and the Department of Health, before going on to ‘spin’ for the British Bankers’ Association, is a major part of their communications arm. Rob Oxley, previously of the Taxpayer’s Alliance and Business for Britain, has worked closely with Matthew Elliot for several years and, like Elliot, is highly effective at ensuring that campaigns have an impact across the media and political spectrum.
The Vote Leave campaign has also taken great efforts to appear cross party – Elliot knows that the campaign will need to appeal to voters on the right as well as on the left. And the No to AV campaign was notable for its genuine cross-party nature. Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer and Kelvin Hopkins represent Labour’s traditional Euroscepticism on the Vote Leave board, alongside Tories such as Steve Baker and Owen Paterson and UKIP’s solitary MP, Douglas Carswell.
The strategy of Vote Leave appears clear from the outset. It is to present the ‘out’ camp as representing the people and an ambitious vision for the future, set against the establishment vision of a Europe largely representing the interests of big corporate bosses. This has already involved a successful attempt to neutralise the CBI, which will undoubtedly be leading the Confederation and other trade bodies to consider how they can become involved in the campaign.
As with many things, Nigel Farage complicates matters a little. He’s heading up a rival ‘leave’ campaign called ‘Leave EU’, prompting numerous People’s Front of Judea quips. The organisation is largely bankrolled by UKIP mega donor Aaron Banks. Thus far, the organisation has failed to achieve anything like the impact of the Vote Leave campaign and hasn’t attracted the same level of interest or personnel. Before the referendum, the Electoral Commission will designate the official ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns, meaning that the various campaigns will need to combine under a common umbrella. At this stage, it looks almost certain that Vote Leave will receive that designation.
There’s a long way to go in the referendum campaign. Indeed, nobody is entirely clear exactly how long there is to go. But it’s clear that the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign has made much of the running in the early phase of the campaign. Its mixture of campaigning expertise, media savvy and streetwise political experience makes Vote Leave a formidable adversary for the Remain camp.