So it begins; yet it is hard to shake the feeling that last Sunday’s referendum announcement was an anticlimax. We knew that a referendum was coming, that the Prime Minister would support the EU, and that he would accept whatever deal emerged from the renegotiation process – in the end a workmanlike but uninspiring package of minor changes to, or rhetorical restatements of, EU policy. Perhaps this apathy represents the fact that the announcement marks only the closing stage of a single phase in the EU argument; one that has rolled onwards since Wilson’s failed bid in 1963, and will endure well after even a successful referendum result. But although the announcement of the referendum’s date does little to sharpen the time-worn arguments of both sides, it does force the judgment of the British public itself into the open, compelling us to confront the fateful question: could Britain really leave the EU?
At this stage the polls appear to be of little use. With averages of the latest six (as of 16th February) showing the ‘yes’ camp with a tiny majority of 51 per cent amongst those willing to declare an opinion, and a significant percentage of the population still undecided, opinion is on a knife edge. Even if a clearer lead were established, the twists and turns of four months of campaigns, and the contingencies of events, mean their predictive power is dubious at best. To make such a prediction, however tenuous, we therefore need to assess the strength of each side’s institutional support and the favourability of the political terrain for their messages.
Three crucial power groups will influence the likely trajectory of the referendum: business, the media and the parties themselves. The first group is the most strongly pro- European, for the obvious reasons concerning ease of international trade and investment. The CBI, as well as a plethora of major business leaders, is firmly behind the ‘in’ campaign. Some companies are wary of engaging in the debate for fear of backlash from Leave-voting consumers; however, the overwhelming message from business is pro-European. The Unions are also likely to support the EU; for instance, the GMB recently declared it was backing the Remain campaign.
By contrast, the media will be more Eurosceptic. The circulation of newspapers leaning towards Leave, such as the Times, Sun, Mail, Telegraph and Express, stands at over 4.2 million, compared to just over 1.6 million for Remain-leaning counterparts like the Guardian and Mirror. This print media imbalance should not be over-emphasised. Papers like the Telegraph, although Eurosceptic and largely dismissive of the EU deal, may yet fall into the Remain camp as time progresses. Furthermore, television and online coverage will act as a counterbalance to newspaper influence.
The parties themselves are more split, but generally favour the EU. The Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru and SNP are all firmly pro-European. Corbyn may be an unenthusiastic Europhile but he has committed his own – considerably more enthusiastic – party to the Remain camp. The Conservatives are split down the middle. Cameron and the majority of his Cabinet will support remaining in the EU, with the most notable exceptions being Boris, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove. The Conservative parliamentary party will also lean towards Europe, with surveys suggesting a 186/144 split in favour of the Union. However, the grassroots are strongly Eurosceptic and, although CCHQ itself is adopting a neutral stance, Conservative constituency organisations and activists will be a major force for Leave, both in direct campaigning and in pressuring their MPs. Finally, the DUP and UKIP will be predictably backing Leave.
The overall balance of forces is tilted in favour of the Remain camp; possible media Euroscepticism is outweighed by widespread business and party political support for Europe. But equally important is the nature of the issues and psychological factors surrounding the referendum.
With respect to the key issues, the Leave and Remain camps are relatively balanced. On the one hand, immigration is the issue most widely regarded as important by the British public (with 46 per cent perceiving it as such in the most recent Economist/Ipsos MORI issues index), and most easily exploitable by the Leave campaign. On the other, both the economy and defence are seen as highly important, and could likely be made more important still through strong campaigning.
Thus Brexit, whilst far from implausible, is unlikely. The Remain campaign holds the influence and organisational capacity of the majority of politicians and activists, the support of the business and international community, argumentative advantages in the key areas of defence and economics and, finally, the potent attraction of the status quo. By contrast, the Leave campaign depends on a broadly Eurosceptic print media, the issue of immigration, one party that most people dislike and the fractured base of another. But even though the pitch slopes towards the Eurosceptic’s goalposts, four months lie between us and the referendum, and there is still everything to play for. May the best campaign win.