The EU Inners will regret turning Project Fear into Project White Flag
By depicting the UK Government as powerless, they are encouraging a challenge to its authority
Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary Photo: Andrew Crowley for the Telegraph
By Allister Heath
02 Mar 2016
We are beggars, not choosers: that, it increasingly seems, is the Government’s message on Brexit. We have no choice and no power: we can either take what little we have been given and remain a member of the EU, warts and all, or face economic, social and cultural catastrophe. There is Project Fear, and then there is Project White Flag, and the Remain side appears to have conflated the two. In doing so, it has made a strategic blunder of epic proportions, turning its greatest strength into yet another weakness.
It is clear that many, broadly Eurosceptic voters of all parties are worried that Brexit could imperil their jobs, or those of their loved ones. I disagree, as it happens, but pro-Brexiteers such as myself need to make and win this argument. In the meantime, and sensibly from its perspective, the Remain campaign always intended to play up these economic fears, and to stoke other, largely bogus worries about the future of low-cost plane tickets or mobile phone roaming charges for tourists. Voters care above all about jobs and consumer issues, as both sides in this debate know full well.
But the Government and many of its anti-Brexit allies have gone too far: instead of carefully stoking the public’s understandable fear of change, and planting doubt in its mind, they have decided to wildly exaggerate the downsides of leaving. The hit to the economy could be greater than that from the Great Recession, we are told by some hysterical economists, and even that best-selling children’s books would no longer be written because, apparently, no non-British authors or illustrators would be allowed into the UK if we were not part of the EU.
These and many other of the similarly extreme claims that have been made in recent days are laughably implausible, even to nervous, swing voters; fear is only effective as a political strategy if it is credible. Even worse for the Government, it has also allowed a toxic narrative to set in: the idea that it would be powerless to stand up for Britain’s interests and look after our economy in the event of a Leave vote.
It’s all rather pathetic and defeatist. It would be too hard and time-consuming to conclude alternative trade deals, we are warned, and we apparently don’t have the requisite skills in the Foreign Office; there is nothing anybody could do to stop our companies, consumers and tourists being bullied and victimised by vindictive foreign governments; and we would be bulldozed by the angry bureaucrats of Brussels wherever we turn. Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general, has claimed that British expats living in Europe would risk “becoming illegal immigrants overnight”, even though their status would in fact be protected under the Vienna Convention of 1969.
Project White Flag, as we should learn to call it, boils down to one long stream of nauseating, miserable, declinist negativity. Alarm bells ought to be going off in Downing Street: politicians don’t win elections or referenda by pretending to be weak and powerless, and by claiming to be at the mercy of foreign governments.
Will expats really be required to return from the Costa del Sol?
Forget about talking the country down: the Government has inadvertently decided to downplay its own ability and effectiveness. The logic of its warped argument, pushed to its limit, is that all that is good in the UK today is thanks to the EU, rather than thanks to its own efforts. It could end up looking feeble, incompetent and unimaginative, rather than a sensible and realistic player in a complex game of foreign policy. In fact, the more the Government invokes Armageddon scenarios in the event of a Brexit, the more it encourages one or more of the leading lights in the Leave campaign to stand up and say that it would be very different with them in charge – in other words, to present themselves as an alternative, rather than merely as an opponent.
Until now, this has not happened, partly because it would finally shatter the pretence that Tory Inners and Outers will be able to kiss and make up as soon as the referendum is out of the way. The biggest rows have skirted around this fundamental issue, and have been about supposed matters of fact (whether or not Mr Cameron’s new deal is binding, for example) or procedure (whether Outer ministers should be treated differently by civil servants).
But the flawed logic of Project White Flag is such that a proper showdown is bound to happen at some point. The leading Outers will have to, in effect, argue that they could do a better job than the Government, and lay out how they would protect the economy if we were to leave. The debate will then abruptly move away from In or Out and become a choice between weakness and strength: here is one tough, credible and optimistic mainstream politician telling us that they can fix problems, and another who says that they cannot.
Will German illustrators really struggle to work in Britain?
The Prime Minister and his Government are thus in a dangerous place: the public turns to them for solutions, not lamentations. Soon enough, what Downing Street wanted to be a campaign about what kind of country we would like to live in will become a quasi-presidential race to determine who we most trust to run the country, and therefore also the Tory party. This is certainly no replay of the Scottish referendum.
Falling into such a trap may not have mattered a few weeks ago, when it looked to many as if no heavy-hitters would join the Leave campaign. The Government, backed by a united establishment, would have felt confident of its ability to take on a few junior ministers or retired grandees, and of course Ukip. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is, needless to say, a political irrelevance.
But the fact that Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Lord Howard and well over a hundred Tory MPs are now on the Leave side, as well as many other establishment figures, has changed everything. These are credible personalities; the public may well believe them if they were to appear on television, reject the Government’s scare-mongering and promise to strike a better deal for Britain. It is equally true that Mr Cameron has taken his critics head-on in the past and triumphed. But this is a high-risk, high-stakes game from which there will be no going back, either for the Prime Minister or for his Tory opponents.
The EU Inners will regret turning Project Fear into Project White Flag - Telegraph