Scaring the electorate into voting for “Remain” may be wrong, but it is working nonetheless.
Having witnessed the passion and intense level of debate during Scotland’s independence referendum in 2014, it seemed the rather stale issue of EU membership would fail to deliver similar excitement. Yet with less than a month to go until the big decision, that prediction has been proved wholly incorrect. The debate has instead become increasingly fierce, with government ministers mercilessly attacking each other in front of the entire nation, and in the process exposing the deep splits within the Tory party over the EU.
One of the most controversial aspects of the debate so far has been the style of campaigning the government has adopted in recent weeks. From David Cameron predicting World War Three to George Osborne suggesting Britain would enter another recession if we left the EU, the dire warnings regarding a Brexit vote have been profound.
Brexit supporters are also furious that the government has utilised tools not available to the “Leave” campaign by publishing questionable Treasury documents warning of economic disaster and delivering pro-EU leaflets to every household in the country. Even SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon, who backs Britain remaining a member of the EU, has criticised some of the tactics used by the government, arguing that they should instead be making the positive case for Europe.
The problem is: project fear, although dishonourable, seems to be working. A recent poll commissioned by the Daily Telegraph shows that pensioners and Tories are both switching to Remain amid concerns over the economy, while an Opinium/Observer poll released last week showed a similar pattern, with the number of Tory voters backing “remain” up nine per cent. And in further good news for “Remain” campaigners, the economy has now taken centre stage after a leap of 17 percentage points in the number of people citing the economy as one of the three main factors influencing how they will vote in June, to 55 per cent.
All these figures demonstrate that the government’s relentless campaign to switch the attention of voters away from immigration and onto the economy is now starting to pay dividends.
Indeed, the importance of this cannot be understated; the “Remain” campaign is seen to be strongest on the economy, with most economists acknowledging that Britain will indeed be worse off following an exit from the European Union (but not necessarily in agreement with the extent to which the government claims we lose out on). Thus, in the lead up to the referendum, pro-EU campaigners want to be talking about the economic consequences of Brexit, rather than discussing immigration, which they are seen to be weak and in disagreement over. This in contrast with the “Leave” campaign which is in almost unanimous agreement that levels of immigration ought to be reduced.
Scaring the electorate into voting a specific way is never the right path to pursue if you want a fair and clean campaign. But those advising the Prime Minister on the best tactics to adopt in order to win the referendum understand that fear, especially with regards to the economy, is an extremely powerful tool in the political sphere.
This is especially true when the other route the prime minister could have opted for was “making the positive case for Europe”. This route may be the morally right way to win, but it is not necessarily the way to win. After all, according to the polls, few in Britain see the EU as a positive entity, and we are overwhelmingly a eurosceptic nation. Research carried out by the National Centre for Social Research found that two-thirds of the electorate were unhappy with Britain’s current membership terms. Yet it also found that despite this, many of those sceptical of the EU would also vote to “Remain” in June because they are unpersuaded by the economic case for Brexit.
Therefore, Cameron’s advisers have sensibly concluded that since the electorate is already deeply eurosceptic and is persuaded by most of the other arguments in favour of Brexit, the prime minister’s campaign must focus on the issue which they are not persuaded by at present (the economy) and ensure they continue to remain unpersuaded. And considering this is a similar strategy to the one the Tories have adopted effectively for years now in order to achieve electoral success, it’s hardly one David Cameron will feel uncomfortable pursuing in this debate.
Although “project fear” is incredibly frustrating to watch play out, it is most definitely here to stay; one of the biggest challenges the “Remain” campaign needed to overcome in order to win was shifting the debate away from immigration and onto the economy. And if recent polls are correct, it seems they may have successfully done exactly that.