It must be ex-Prime Ministers week. After Tony Blair popped back with a handy £106,000 to help Labour win the next election, Gordon Brown is in the Guardian this morning. He says that pro-Europeans that they are in danger of sleepwalking into defeat in the In-Out referendum.
Warning that Ukip’s anti-immigration focus has turned the European argument into a “culture war”, Brown warns:
Sadly we pro-Europeans are in danger of fighting with the wrong weapons: a worthy, London establishment-led corporate-financed fact-based campaign of “the great and the good”, whose commitment to Europe is admirable but whose prominence will be used by anti-Europeans to justify the allegation that Europe is for an elite who don’t understand the real Britain.”
Laudable factsheets about trade or well-meaning manifestos on the minutiae of reform will be no match for the gut emotional appeal of claims that Europe is making Britain a foreign country. When you are fighting back in a culture war, you must take on one set of deeply felt beliefs with another set of deeply felt beliefs. ”
He’s not the only one. One of the reasons why senior members of the shadow Cabinet have held out against other frontbenchers who want to have an in-out is, as one put it: “We’re not in a position to fight it and win it at the moment.” A staffer describes her boss’ thinking like this: “We don’t want a referendum [on Europe] for the same reason we don’t want one on the death penalty: we’d lose it.” And in the party at large there is alarm at the extent to which Labour and the wider pro-European campaign is not at the races.
The Out campaign has all-but-decided on its best line-up for the battle to come, and already exists in utero in the shape of Business for Britain, a sharp-elbowed and media-savvy think tank headed by Matthew Elliott that has quietly put together a team of able advocates for a European exit. To make matters worse for pro-Europeans, it is likely that when the campaign moves out of cover it will be bolstered by veterans from the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the No to AV campaign – a sort of right-wing, anti-European version of the Avengers. As one pro-European Labour MP noted to me: “We already know how they’ll play it. A few useful idiots from our side, plenty of money from the Tory side, and a few seemingly apolitical figures while we run around talking about fishing rights.”
The official line is that, in the event of a Labour victory, the matter will not arise and, if the reverse happens, David Cameron will do the legwork of keeping Britain in the European Union. But as one insider notes: “It’s [an in-out referendum] a policy that gets you the support of the DUP, Ukip, a handful of monomaniac Tory MPs, our own Eurosceptics for a budget or a tricky confidence vote…it could be too difficult to resist.” It seems likely that, regardless of the outcome of the election, the pro-Europeans will have to fight an in-out referendum sooner rather than later. Troublingly, it lacks either a “set of deeply felt beliefs” or a charismatic champion in the battle to come.