After almost three years since David Cameron first promised a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union, you would have thought each side would have more consensus on their winning message. Watching today’s debate in the House of Commons as David Cameron set out his case for “staying in a reformed Europe” makes we wonder.
What has been christened by many as ‘Project Fear’ is the narrative the Prime Minister chose. There were few nods to the positives that the European Union delivers. His focus was on the “leap in the dark” stressing there is no certainty that the United Kingdom would be able to negotiate trade or security arrangements and have a much diminished voice on the big issues from climate change to dealing with ISIS and Putin’s Russia.
By contrast, Jeremy Corbyn struck a far more optimistic tone. Labour and the trade unions, he said, would overwhelmingly support remaining in the European Union because it created a more socially cohesive and fairer Europe. There was no suggestion that Armageddon would follow a vote to leave. His tone was shared by the SNP Leader at Westminster, Angus Robertson. He called on the Prime Minister to make the positive case for remaining in the European Union and not rely on Project Fear. And the SNP knows a thing or two about epoch defining votes of this type from last year’s independence vote.
So where did the ‘vote leave’ campaign pitch their case during today’s debate? Boris Johnson made a brief intervention asking precisely what sovereignty had been returned to Parliament by the Prime Minister’s deal. Veteran euro-sceptic Bill Cash also focussed on the primacy of Parliament. And former Minister Owen Paterson asked about when ratification of the new Treaty would commence, posing yet another constitutional issue. So today ‘vote leave’ pitched their case on constitutional issues more likely to be of interest to the Westminster bubble than the wider electorate. It was left to Democratic Unionist Michael Dodds who chose, by contrast, to focus on the detail of the Prime Minister’s benefits changes for migrants, which he suggested lacked credibility.
It seems both sides are struggling to agree their overall narrative with today neither striking an optimistic, positive vision. It is generally accepted that the status quo has an in-built advantage in referenda of this type as people decide to stick with “mother for fear of something worse”. But today’s debate suggests an uninspiring campaign that might lead to the lower turnout ‘vote leave’ are banking on.