Is it just bad luck that there is so much feuding within the Brexit camp before David Cameron’s hoped-for 23 June referendum? Is it bad luck that assorted out champions can’t even agree what Margaret Thatcher would have done, or persuade Boris Johnson off the safety fence?
Of course not. Factionalism and backstabbing is central to the project. Campaigns which cannot agree why it’s so important – to them, but not to most voters – for Britain to shake off the colonial yoke of Brussels, let alone what should be done next – find it easier (and more fun) to denounce each other’s failures of policy and personality. Freud called it the “narcissism of small difference”.
First, Lady Thatcher. The Sunday Times revived this macabre bit of posthumous theology 10 days ago when it ran a perfectly sensible article by Charles Powell (paywall), her foreign policy adviser, setting out what she actually did in office; the integrationist stuff; how unenthusiastic she’d been even when campaigning for the yes campaign in the 1975 referendum and how frustrated she became with Europe’s failings, especially after leaving office.
That’s the key. Lord Powell concludes that if Thatcher was still in No 10 she would renegotiate terms as Cameron has done and settle for the best semi-detached deal she could get. Her head would rule her heart; Thatcher the pragmatist would not vote to leave.
Norman Tebbit and a host of worshippers at the Thatcher shrine weren’t having it. They fought over the coffin, much like an earlier generation did over Churchill’s. His record on Europe was highly ambiguous, so both sides claimed him as their own. Ditto Maggie. I knew her better than that “apparatchik”, said Lord Tebbit. Dear old Bill Cash MP, the sceptic’s sceptic, even dug up a letter of “proof” for the Daily Mail.
Did the letter prove what Cash claimed? No. Did Tebbit know her better than Powell? I very much doubt it. Tebbit was a cabinet colleague (1981-87), political ally, party chairman (they fell out in the 1987 election) and potential rival. Powell was the suave, experienced trusted adviser and her private secretary from 1983 to the end in 1990. When he says he had more face time than anyone except Denis Thatcher and her personal assistant, the devoted Crawie, he must be right. She liked men, especially officer class types. Powell is posher eye candy than Tebbit. Matthew D’Ancona, who knew her better than me (but not as well as Tebbit) thinks the same: head over heart.
The absence of much turbulence on the yes side is instructive. The Britain Stronger in Europe campaign is being headed by Stuart Rose, ex-chief executive of M&S, a powerful brand. Labour’s Alan Johnson is running the party’s campaign – a lesson learned from the Scottish referendum. Lord Rose can sound as dull as a church yard at midnight on Radio 4’s Today programme, but when I heard him speak at a Westminster press gallery lunch the other week he was much punchier. As a Euro agnostic who favours staying in, I was mildly encouraged.
Rose’s lot will get the yes money but it is not certain who out of the two warring no campaigns will get the Brexit cheque. Why not? You may have read a stream of newspaper stories about why the Leave.EU campaign despises the Vote Leave crowd as a bunch of self-serving arrogant careerists who wouldn’t know any ordinary voter if one bit them.
Labour MP Kate Hoey has quit Vote Leave in despair – thereby damaging its claims to be cross-party – and an attempt in January to stage a putsch against VL’s professional leadership failed. So did direct appeals for a deal made by Ukip’s Nigel Farage and Aaron Banks, the very loud-mouth insurance tycoon, who are the most visible players in Leave EU.
Neither is in danger of getting the Nobel peace prize. But nor is VL’s Matthew Elliott, a smart operator who got the TaxPayers’ Alliance up and running , or his sidekick, Dominic Cummings. Dom is clever too but could start a fight in an empty room.
Personalities apart, the substantive difference between the two is that Vote Leave believes the positive economic case for a Britain liberated from the dead hand of Brussels bureaucracy is the way to go: more wholesome and uplifting, though a bit vague on where we go next.
Leave.EU is more visceral: Nigel’s on board, it has to be. Unlike VL which is cool about the right sort of immigration, Leave.EU majors on the feeling so many people have that successive governments have allowed too many economic migrants into Britain (refugees are a separate and urgently different issue) and done so too quickly.
I fear they have a point, and most of those who think so too are not all racists or xenophobes – though some are. They just see their communities under too much strain when there is quite enough austerity-driven stress already.
I think that Brexit could win in the current public mood, not only on account of the EU’s evident failings and real concern over immigration levels but as part of the wider “sod the lot of you mood” so evident here and in many countries.
The shambles of the Brexit campaign’s infighting may yet rescue the yes crowd from its own lethargy and complacency. Which persuasive public figure will lead it? Certainly not Farage or Banks; best to keep them locked in the broom cupboard. Chris Grayling, Liam Fox, Theresa Villiers or Priti Patel? You must be joking.
As careerists make career calculations and decide to stay loyal to Cameron (Oliver Letwin struggles ineffectually to do both), current speculation focuses on Michael Gove and Johnson; the tortured, conscientious man of principle and little personal ambition vs None of the Above; the Boris who says he is “pro having his cake and pro eating it”.
Don’t be afraid of Brexit, the mayor says periodically, but don’t be fooled by the bombast: he is biding his time; working out what’s best for Boris. The stakes are huge and my hunch is that he’ll bottle it: Bottler Boris, not Bexit Boris.
This year won’t be a re-run of 1975 any more than the SNP’s defeat in Scotland’s independence vote was an end to that debate. The press of external events beyond our control will prove decisive in the long run. Another ironic footnote to the sovereignty debate.
This article was written by Michael White, for theguardian.com on Monday 15th February 2016 14.21 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010