Infighting has erupted inside the defeated Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, with senior figures saying Conservatives on the campaign team repeatedly blocked it from making personal attacks on Michael Gove and Boris Johnson.
They said that, until near the end of the campaign, Downing Street was paralysed by fear of “blue on blue” attacks. Cameron is understood to have blocked an attack ad – a pastiche of the party’s 2015 general election poster which showed Ed Miliband tucked inside the breast pocket of Alex Salmond. The ad for which all the artwork was prepared showed Johnson inside the top pocket of Nigel Farage.
“We were hobbled in what we were allowed to do by No 10. They were sure they were going to win, and their chief interest was putting the Conservative party back together. There was a huge reluctance to attack Boris. A campaign that cannot personalise an attack is fighting with one hand behind its back,” said a senior campaign insider.
Others in the remain camp say its internal polling showed that “blue on blue” attacks alienated progressive voters who were crucial to victory. Charts from inside the campaign given to the Guardian also show the extent to which Downing Street believed key Conservatives such as Cameron, rather than Labour, should be the dominant message carriers.
The campaign conducted more than 40 focus groups, which revealed the extent to which the erosion of public trust had led to cynicism about the raft of experts the remain camp produced to warn about Brexit. Some believed that Cameron and Osborne were also damaged by the fallout from the budget and the Panama Papers controversy about the tax affairs of the prime minister’s father.
One strategist said: “The public just said they lie and pull the wool over our eyes. I asked one woman to give me an example of these lies, and she said, ‘9/11’. The only people the public slightly trusted were Martin Lewis, Richard Branson and, on a good day, Mark Carney so long as he was not seen as a banker. We had a credibility problem, but so now does all public debate in the UK.”
Some in the remain campaign urged the chancellor, George Osborne, to broaden his message about the economic risks of Brexit because it was not resonating with Labour voters who felt they had less to lose economically.
A senior campaign source said: “Downing Street told us: ‘We won with a risk message in the Scottish referendum in 2014 and 2015, and we could do the same in 2016.’ They were sure the economic risk message would bring the voters back to the status quo. Those messages are fine if they are going to be echoed every day in the rightwing press, so creating an echo chamber that the broadcasters have to follow. But the press was never on our side.”
There were also discussions about whether to try to counter the leave campaign’s immigration message, but it was agreed a substantive policy shift would be needed to stray from economic risk. Two options were examined: whether to propose a change to the terms of the renegotiation on free movement or secure a strong statement from the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, that Britain would not have access to the single market if it left the EU.
A source said: “The truth is the Conservatives’ immigration policy is not credible, and Labour has three to five immigration policies, and decided to hold a policy seminar on them in the middle of the campaign. It was not ideal.”
There were also structural problems. Senior figures from Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat campaigns came together, but separately Labour insisted it run its own Labour In campaign led by Alan Johnson. The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, also declined to share a platform with Cameron, although insiders say he might have done so if the prime minister had made a personal private appeal to him as the threat of defeat grew.
Just over two weeks before polling day, there was a 5-6% slippage in remain’s polling partly due to the success of leave’s message on immigration and the negative effects of referendum coverage coming through the prism of a Tory party struggle.
The slippage led Stronger In to ask Gordon Brown directly to join the campaign. The official remain campaign is scathing about the Labour campaign. A source said: “It was unprofessional. They had no stories, no day-to-day content, no messaging. It was partly they were inexperienced, but some of the Corbyn team just did not seem to care.”
Another said: “We set aside campaign days for them, and then at 2pm they would send over some reheated waffly lukewarm rhetoric. They just never delivered and frankly they did not seem to be that bothered. Honestly, I wonder if this is the outcome that they wanted. Cameron has resigned and the Tory party is in a mess.”
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