Nigel Farage is seeking to drum up support among anti-EU donors by saying that Ukip and its allies offer the only guarantee of a unified referendum campaign, which could spend up to £12m, matching or even outpacing the remain side.
Amid continuing bickering between anti-EU groups, the Ukip leader said the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union would be jeopardised if the rival Vote Leave became the main campaign group. It may only be able to spend £7m in the referendum campaign.
Farage, who consulted lawyers before explaining his thinking, is telling donors that few people seem to have noticed the significance of the Electoral Commission’s funding rules, which could hand a major advantage to the leave side.
If donors back Ukip and its allies, Leave.EU and Grassroots Out (GO), who are funded by the Ukip donor Arron Banks, they could spend up to £12m in the campaign.
The two lead campaign groups on either side in the referendum, which will be granted official status by the Electoral Commission, will be allowed to spend £7m each. In addition, political parties are able to spend money on the campaign, including Ukip, who will be allowed to spend £4m.
Farage is saying that if his allies in GO win official designation, a unified campaign with the ability to spend £11.7m will be formed. This would be formed of £7m for GO, £4m for Ukip and anther £700,000 for the Leave.EU group. Other registered campaign groups, which do not win lead status but are officially registered with the Electoral Commission, will be allowed to spend £700,000 each.
By contrast, the Vote Leave group has wrapped all its ally groups under one umbrella, which means it will be limited to spending £7m if it wins official designation. Ukip and its allies could then spend £5.4m (£4m for Ukip, £700,000 a piece for GO and Leave.EU) on an entirely separate campaign.
The Ukip leader is seeking to woo donors with another key message. Farage said the anti-EU side should exploit the inability of the Conservative and Labour parties, both of whose leaders are expected to endorse a vote to remain in the EU, to exercise their right to spend an extra £14m on the remain campaign.
The Conservative party will not be able to spend a single penny on the campaign after David Cameron was forced to concede that the Tories would remain neutral. It could spend up to £7m if it wishes to. The government will formally support a vote to remain in the EU if the prime minister succeeds in his EU negotiations.
Labour will struggle to raise anywhere near its £7m limit, a process complicated by the decision of Unison, one of the UK’s biggest trade unions, not to adopt a formal position until its conference on 19 June. The referendum is expected to be held on 23 June.
Ukip does praise Vote Leave for what it regards as its most successful coup of the campaign so far: forcing the prime minister to concede that the Tories would remain officially neutral. A party source said: “The best thing that Vote Leave ever did is to get the Tories to go neutral. That means they can’t use the machine. One does congratulate them for doing what they did.”
Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, said the leave campaign was likely to have in mind the out campaign in the 1975 EEC referendum campaign, which was hugely outspent by the in side. “In 1975, it was absolutely no contest in terms of money,” he said. “The yes side had so much more money than the no side that they beat them out of sight.”
But Bale said he did not expect differences in funding to have a large impact. “It is significant, but probably not determinative,” he said.
The squabbling among and within anti-EU groups is causing dismay among many Eurosceptics, who fear that it is inflicting severe damage on their chances in the referendum campaign. The differences are caused by a combination of political calculation and personality clashes.
The Vote Leave group, which is led by the former TaxPayers’ Alliance chief executive Matthew Elliott and Michael Gove’s former special adviser Dominic Cummings, was established to be the main cross-party vehicle for the anti-EU side. It has tried to outline a positive vision of Britain as a confident trading nation outside the EU. This strategy is designed to win a key 20-30% of middle-ground voters who would instinctively like to leave the EU, but have concerns about the impact of a Brexit on jobs. The rest of British voters divide between a third who would like to leave and a third who would like to remain.
Elliott and Cummings believe that the voters they are seeking to target are concerned about immigration, but it is not a key issue for them. As middle-ground voters, they are alienated by Farage, whom they see as a liability.
Banks launched the rival Leave.EU last year. He said Vote Leave was an elitist Westminster-based campaign and pledged to run a grassroots campaign across Britain. When it became clear that Leave.EU was closely associated with Ukip – jeopardising its chances of winning lead campaign status, which is only granted to cross-party groups – Banks offered financial support to GO. This group has succeeded in winning cross-party support because its launch coincided with internal feuding in Vote Leave amid anger at the abrasive manner of Cummings. Kate Hoey, the veteran Eurosceptic Labour MP, became exasperated with Cummings and abandoned Labour Leave for GO.
Bale said: “Aside from the personalities, there has always been a fundamental tension between the Little Englander, sovereigntist side of the Eurosceptic argument on the one hand, and on the other, the hyper-globalisers whose main interest is in Britain becoming a Hong Kong. Although the two can be put together – the right to determine the rules under which your economy operates also has to do with sovereignty – when it comes to immigration, it plays into that split.
“The Hong Kong side have got more chances of appealing to young voters [by not focusing on immigration] than they have if they make a culturally conservative appeal. And the leave side knows it has more trouble appealing to younger voters.”
Bale said the squabbling between the rival groups is less damaging than their principal weakness: the lack of a charismatic leader. “If they had someone who was seen as an appealing face of the campaign it wouldn’t matter so much that they are seen as divided.
“They need some sort of mainstream, as well as a charismatic, figure. That is why Nigel Farage would be such a problem. Of course he is going to mobilise people who already agree with him, but he is toxic to a lot of voters and not just young liberal voters. He is toxic to possibly a majority in the country. So they really need someone who is not him. That is why they are so keen on the idea of Boris doing it. Whatever the opposite of Marmite is, Boris is it.”
One leading Tory Eurosceptic said the anti-EU campaign was experiencing a bumpy patch because many figures had been waiting decades for this moment. “The challenge at the moment is that there are lots of people for whom this is the culmination of years and years and years of work. This is Christmas and birthday and Easter and the moon landing and the second coming of Christ all at the same time, and they absolutely want to be at the heart of it. It is too exciting a gift to let go of,” they said.
Farage indicated that there were no signs of a reconciliation between the rival groups when he criticised Vote Leave at a Brexit conference in Westminster during the week. Speaking from the same platform as Steve Baker, a Tory supporter of Vote Leave, the Ukip leader said: “One of the absolute crying shames and tragedies is that one of the groups seeking nomination for the designation in the referendum absolutely refuses point blank to work with anyone else. What a shame that is. Despite the machinations of Westminster and the careers of the apparatchiks, the British people, it would appear, are ignoring all this.”
Political parties that won more than 30% of the vote in the 2015 general election – Labour and the Tories – will be allowed to spend a further £7m on the referendum. Parties that won between 10 and 20% of the vote – Ukip – will be allowed to spend £4m, while parties with 5-10% – the Liberal Democrats – will be allowed to spend £3m. The SNP, the Green party, Plaid Cymru and the Northern Ireland parties, which won less than 5% of the vote, can spend £700,000 each.
This article was written by Nicholas Watt Chief political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 12th February 2016 14.37 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010