The digested referendum campaign: Immigration! Economy! Immigration!

Where did it all start? With rows over Maastricht back in the 1990s?

With the rise of first the BNP and then Ukip in the 2000s? History is an endlessly rewriteable feast. But for the sake of convenience, let’s say this referendum took shape as David Cameron’s sop to the Eurosceptics in his own party. Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless – remember him? – had defected to Ukip and the prime minister was desperate to make sure no one else jumped ship before the 2015 general election. Open civil war is never a good look, so Dave promised a referendum sometime before the end of 2017 just to shut them up.

What Dave hadn’t counted on was having to go through with it. Like everyone else, he had assumed he would either be in opposition or part of another coalition government. Either way, he would have someone else to blame for his inability to deliver on his promises. But within weeks of the Conservative election victory the Tory Eurosceptics demanded their referendum payback, so Dave started visiting the 27 other EU member states frantically trying to renegotiate a better deal for the UK while insisting he was playing hardball.

By February he had concluded his negotiations. Having spent the previous six months claiming the EU was urgently need in reform, Dave was now convinced the concessions he had achieved – an emergency brake on in-work welfare benefits for migrants and a general promise for Germany and France to be a bit nicer to us – were a major breakthrough and announced he was going to campaign vigorously for Britain to remain.

Others were not so quick to come forward. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who had previously always spoken out against the EU, found himself at odds with the vast majority of his party and initially tried to pretend the referendum wasn’t really happening before being forced to half-heartedly mumble pro-remain speeches from time to time. Theresa May was rather more successful in her Trappist vows and after whispering “I’m backing remain” so quietly that no one heard her, she retreated into a convent for the duration. She will go down in history as the most silent home secretary in British history. Anyone might think she was hedging her bets.

As, it seemed, was Boris Johnson. Over the years, the former London mayor has contradicted himself on so many issues he’s not an easy man to second guess, but Dave was fairly confident Boris would come out on his side. How wrong he was. After agonising for at least an hour during a game of tennis with his sister, Rachel, Boris decided the best way for him to advance his political career was to back Brexit. If Brexit were to win, Boris could be prime minister inside 18 months. “This is the most difficult decision I have ever had to make,” he sobbed. Though you wouldn’t have guessed that from his behaviour, as from then on he wasted no time in rubbishing the EU at every opportunity.

With Boris coming out for Boris, the referendum campaign could begin in earnest. Oxford-educated Boris and Michael Gove v Oxford-educated Dave and George Osborne. Or in Boris’s delusional mind, the little people v the establishment. Dave and George because it was hard to get any other high-profile politicians to campaign with them; and Boris and Michael because they had already fallen out with Nigel Farage and the Grassroots Out Ukip faction and because the public either didn’t like their other supporters, such as Iain Duncan Smith, or had no idea who they were. Gisela Who?

Initially the economy dominated the debate, with Osborne claiming every family would lose £4,300 a year and Boris insisting the UK gave the EU £350m a week. The Treasury select committee investigated both claims and found them both to be false, though Boris’s were the work of greater fantasy. Boris dismissed this as Project Fear. Then every independent economic thinktank in the universe said Britain would be worse off if it left the EU, and Gove insisted we shouldn’t trust experts and, besides, they were all just Nazi sympathisers. Every country in the universe – apart from North Korea – said Britain would be better off in the EU. Boris declared that Kim Jong-un might have a point.

Having lost the economic argument, Boris and Gove shifted the debate to immigration. The way to reduce the number of immigrants, they insisted, was to stop people from the EU coming in and let in loads more migrants from outside the EU instead. That way, even if we had exactly the same number of immigrants we could take back control and prove the UK wasn’t racist. Or something. Farage wasn’t at all happy about this and launched a poster campaign suggesting that Britain was about to be over-run by the Syrian refugees who were actually in Slovenia. Within hours, the Labour MP Jo Cox had been murdered and the rest of Ukip’s poster campaign was binned.

Punctuating all this were a series of televised debates between the leaders of the campaigns in which everyone said exactly the same thing they had been saying for the four months. At some point, Corbyn might even have joined in to say something about workers’ rights. The leave supporters cheered everything Boris said, the remain supporters cheered everything Dave said, and the polls remained neck and neck.

Powered by article was written by John Crace, for on Thursday 23rd June 2016 07.00 Europe/ © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010