Leaving on the Line

The last referendum on Britain’s membership of some sort of European political association – the EEC back then – was in 1975, as pro-leave groups never tire of reminding us. You would think then that such groups have had enough time to organise themselves properly and present one, single, united face to the electorate in time for the referendum on Britain’s continued membership of what is now the EU.

Apparently not. The various anti-EU camps (mainly Leave.EU and Vote Leave) are badly split both internally and between themselves. The split between each group makes a sort of sense: the Electoral Commission will designate just one group from each side as the ‘official’ representative of in or out so in one respect the lack of harmony is a fight to win this designation, and the spoils – money, media time etc. – that come with it.

The internal splits are less easily explicable. The most obvious, high-profile rumpus is the continued position of Dominic Cummings, the talented but abrasive director of Vote Leave. Few within Vote Leave seem keen on Mr Cummings anymore, even though he has a proven track record – he was a very effective advisor to the popular Justice Secretary Michael Gove when he was at the Department for Education. This may be a surprise, until it is recalled that Mr Cummings was forced out of that Department for alienating, well, just about everyone.

Still, it may have been thought that differences could be put aside for a few months at least – the referendum will possibly be as soon as June, and haven’t we been told repeatedly that the question of in or out of the EU is the defining one for our generation? If that is the case – and it may well be – then why has the response of those who want to leave been to descend into backstabbing chaos?

Perhaps it is something to do with the two different visions of a Britain outside of the EU. Some see Britain as leaving the EU and returning to somewhere around 1958: a much tougher immigration system combined with a loose relationship to the EU – and a somewhat superior attitude to our poor benighted partners stuck on the continent.

Others see a Britain free from the shackles of all that red tape becoming like a North Atlantic Singapore. Britain would be a free-trading, free-wheeling commercial hub with a relatively liberal attitude towards welcoming immigrants, especially high-skilled ones. The difference, you’ll note, very much revolves around attitudes towards immigration.

Or maybe the various anti-EU groups are just so used to being against something that they find it difficult to present a solid vision of what they are for. Added to that, many Eurosceptics – or at least those sceptical enough to endorse and campaign for one of the groups that wants to leave the EU – have a history of being scrappy outsiders. Most of them come from either UKIP or the Conservatives, two parties who cordially loathe each other. Neither is conducive to swallowing your pride and compromising for the good of the cause. Compromise is not a word most would associate with the Tory right or any wing of UKIP.

Indeed, I wonder whether some more constructive Conservative MPs – less obsessed with the EU and more aware of the damage the monomania on the issue has done to the Conservatives – are not secretly enjoying the shambles of the various leave campaigns right now. For years they’ve been sniped at for not being sufficiently anti-EU: now nobody can really agree what being sufficiently anti-EU means.

Normally in a referendum with two clear choices this would be a shame. But it’s not, because leaving the EU would be madness for Britain. The danger is that the (slightly underwhelming) Business Stronger in Europe campaign gets complacent and whoever finally emerges as the leader of the leave campaign persuades a crucial 10% of the electorate to vote with them. And then what for Britain? Nobody knows – least of all the leave campaigns.