The chaotic Yes to AV campaign

Few campaign plans survive contact with the enemy. Yes to AV has proved no exception.

Dull? You think the AV referendum campaign is dull? It's only been going for a fortnight and we've already had vile smears, fasict slurs, Oscar winners, prime ministers, dinosaurs, bishops and even a brief sighting of Nick Clegg.

I have to fess up. When not blogging on here, I do a turn with the No to AV campaign as a consultant. It's a bit like being a soldier returning from the Vietnam war. People point at you and sneer, "That's him, the £250m ad guy. He's been doing disgusting things to babies and soldiers."

All I can say in mitigation is: you haven't been there. Up country. Into the heart of darkness of the fight for alternative votes.

The atrocities the other side commits go unreported. The fake website calling the No finance director a Nazi. The photoshopped image of John Prescott and Margaret Beckett next to Nick Griffin. The miniature dinosaurs being sent round to caricature Labour MPs and trade union leaders.

Oh, they know how to fight dirty, those Yes boys and girls. The saintly clergy and the fragrant Helena Bonham Carter telling us sweetly, "AV is as easy as one, two, three." It's all a smokescreen, I tell you, a front for the world's press. Over at Yes HQ they'd as soon stab you in the ballots as look at you.

Actually, I have to confess to some respect for the opposition. Their discipline is ruthless: "A small change that'll make a big difference", "MPs will have to work harder to win". Their rapid and efficient deployment as a "people's campaign". Oh, they got the jump on us all right; with polling leads last year at times as high as 25 per cent.

But few campaign plans survive contact with the enemy, and Yes has proved no exception. There's a strong strand of moral superiority running through the crusade for "fairer votes", and on the first few occasions they have run into an opposing viewpoint, they have faltered.

Their first mistake was the release of their "celebrity backers". They certainly got a lot of publicity: too much publicity. If you're trying to make yourself look like an earthy, grass-roots movement, squeezing out a press release in between the Oscar nomination and the acceptance speech isn't the smartest way of going about it. Nor is it the best idea to select as a frontman and woman for your "people's campaign" two actors who have become synonymous with the king and queen of England.

The second, and far more serious, mistake was their chaotic response to the publication of the £250m referendum expense. First they tried to dismiss it, then they went hysterical over it and finally, and most ludicrously, they tried to ban it. There is a golden rule for dealing with an opponent's political costing of your programme. Either destroy it, or ignore it. The Yes campaign has done neither.

It's perfectly legitimate to have a debate over the price of the referendum, its implementation and the wisdom of spending up to a quarter of a billion pounds on electoral reform when there are a so many other urgent public spending priorities. At least I believe it is. The Yes campaign chief executive, Katie Ghose, clearly thinks otherwise, and has claimed that adverts carrying the £250m figure are illegal. Her campaign literally believes claiming AV will cost £250m should be against the law of the land.

Meanwhile, Charlie Kennedy has written to the ASA demanding that it tear up its rules on political advertising, stating: "UK voters are entitled to decent, honest and truthful advertising." That's the same Charlie Kennedy who as Lib Dem leader published a campaign booklet which urged his activists to "be wicked, act shamelessly, stir endlessly".

What the public thinks of this increasingly vicious fight purportedly being fought in their name, God only knows. Actually, the most recent opinion polls show a significant shift away from Yes towards the No camp, especially in those polls where the question includes a basic description of how the AV system will work.

In fact, who am I kidding? We all know the voters' real view of the AV debate. They don't give a monkey's. All they see is a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom they know nothing. But it's a quarrel that will go on. By the time you read this, I'll be back up country, engaged in a life-or-death struggle with an elusive and ruthless foe. It's a war without mercy, seemingly without end. Against a faceless opponent for whom we have only nicknames – sHelena, or Katie, or Charlie

I don't know how it will all play out. All I know is this: I still love the thrill of putting my cross on a first-past-the-post ballot come election morning.

And Charlie don't surf.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn turns "the nasty party" back on Theresa May

The Labour leader exploited Conservative splits over disability benefits.

It didn't take long for Theresa May to herald the Conservatives' Copeland by-election victory at PMQs (and one couldn't blame her). But Jeremy Corbyn swiftly brought her down to earth. The Labour leader denounced the government for "sneaking out" its decision to overrule a court judgement calling for Personal Independence Payments (PIPs) to be extended to those with severe mental health problems.

Rather than merely expressing his own outrage, Corbyn drew on that of others. He smartly quoted Tory backbencher Heidi Allen, one of the tax credit rebels, who has called on May to "think agan" and "honour" the court's rulings. The Prime Minister protested that the government was merely returning PIPs to their "original intention" and was already spending more than ever on those with mental health conditions. But Corbyn had more ammunition, denouncing Conservative policy chair George Freeman for his suggestion that those "taking pills" for anxiety aren't "really disabled". After May branded Labour "the nasty party" in her conference speech, Corbyn suggested that the Tories were once again worthy of her epithet.

May emphasised that Freeman had apologised and, as so often, warned that the "extra support" promised by Labour would be impossible without the "strong economy" guaranteed by the Conservatives. "The one thing we know about Labour is that they would bankrupt Britain," she declared. Unlike on previous occasions, Corbyn had a ready riposte, reminding the Tories that they had increased the national debt by more than every previous Labour government.

But May saved her jibe of choice for the end, recalling shadow cabinet minister Cat Smith's assertion that the Copeland result was an "incredible achivement" for her party. "I think that word actually sums up the Right Honourable Gentleman's leadership. In-cred-ible," May concluded, with a rather surreal Thatcher-esque flourish.

Yet many economists and EU experts say the same of her Brexit plan. Having repeatedly hailed the UK's "strong economy" (which has so far proved resilient), May had better hope that single market withdrawal does not wreck it. But on Brexit, as on disability benefits, it is Conservative rebels, not Corbyn, who will determine her fate.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.