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"Project Fear" is back - and it's still Remain's best hope

George Osborne and Alistair Darling's dystopian warning is more potent than desperate promises of EU reform. 

For last two days, as the Leave campaign has taken the lead, the Remain side has shifted emphasis to the "positive case" for EU membership. David Cameron and George Osborne retreated to allow Gordon Brown and Labour to issue a five-point plan (would it be any other number?) for reform. But today "Project Fear" is back with a vengeance. For the first time in the campaign, Osborne and his predecessor Alistair Darling will share a platform to warn of an "emergency Brexit Budget" if the UK votes Leave.

Based on the IFS's forecast of a £20-40bn black hole, the sepulchral pair will set out £30bn of "illustrative" austerity measures. On the tax side, they will warn of a 2p rise in the basic rate, a 3p rise in the higher rate, a 5p rise in inheritance tax and a 5 per cent rise in alcohol and petrol duties. On the spending side, they will warn a £2.5bn cut to the NHS, a £1.2bn cut to defence, a £1.15bn cut to education and a £2bn cut to pensions. 

"As Chancellor, I would have a responsibility to try to restore stability to the public finances and that would mean an emergency Budget where we would have to increase taxes and cut spending," Osborne will say (though he won't be delivering any Budgets if Brexit happens). “I am even more worried now than I was in 2008," Darling will declare. "As a former Chancellor, I have to tell you that would mean an emergency Budget where we would have to increase taxes and cut spending. Why on earth would we inflict that on ourselves all over again?"

It isn't pretty  - but "Project Fear" is still Remain's best card. In recent days, the myth has resurfaced that "The Vow", the promise of further powers for the Scottish parliament, won the 2014 independence referendum. It didn't. An Edinburgh University study found that only 3 per cent of voters cited the offer as the main motivation for their decision. By contrast, 26 per cent named the fear that "independence would make Scotland worse off", 28 per cent the Yes campaign's "unanswered questions", 5 per cent the "risk" of independence and 5 per cent their lack of trust in Alex Salmond. It wasn't "The Vow" that won the referendum for the Unionist side, it was the much-maligned "Project Fear". 

It is this strategy that Remain has long sought to emulate. Eleventh-hour promises of "reform" won't defeat Leave (as Lynton Crosby likes to remark, "you can't fatten a pig on market day") - but fear might. The calls by Tom Watson, Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls to limit free movement won't halt the drift to Brexit. David Cameron tried - and failed - to achieve change and Jeremy Corbyn doesn't want to. "We clear the decks for Labour to make a Labour case and they start falling out over immigration. Fucking moronic," a Remain source fumed. By raising the salience of immigration, Labour politicans risk merely encouraging voters to back Leave - the only side that can credibly promise an end to free movement (at the cost of leaving the Single Market). 

Far better to hammer the message that reducing immigration isn't worth "wrecking the economy" for. Below the headline figures, as YouGov data shows, voters think that leaving is riskier than remaining and that the economy will be worse off post-Brexit. It is these sentiments that Remain needs to obsessively animate in the final week. Only when voters truly fear the consequences of their actions do they pull back from the brink. In the view of some, "Project Fear" hasn't been fearful enough.

But Osborne and Darling's "Brexit Budget" is the start of a closing rally that will leave voters in no doubt that they will pay - quite literally - for Brexit. If "Project Fear" can't win the referendum, then nothing can. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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