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6 June 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 11:41am

Is the Remain campaign’s Project Fear losing its mojo?

The Scottish referendum and the European referendum are more different than the Remain campaign would like, says Laurence Janta-Lapinski. 

By Laurence Janta-Lipinski

In the past week there has been much talk of how the Leave campaign its focus back to immigration. Some have argued that they have lost the argument on the economy and are dropping back to their comfort zone. The inference of all this was that Leave is a campaign in freefall, much like the tail end of Labour’s general election campaign in 2015.

However, as we enter the final few weeks before the EU referendum vote, the Leave campaign appears to be surprisingly resilient and may even be gaining some of that valuable political commodity, momentum. A closer analysis of some of our internal data gives a clue as to why this is.

Put bluntly, it seems as though some of the tactics from the so-called “project fear” playbook that was deemed to have done so well in the closing days of the Scottish Independence referendum are not cutting through as they did in the final weeks of the 2014 vote. This was shown in last week’s Sky News interview with David Cameron where many members of the public said the Prime Minister was “scaremongering.”

A month out from both the Scottish referendum and the EU referendum, we asked identical questions on the economic impact of a yes/leave and no/remain vote. It highlights the challenge facing the Remain campaign in the next two weeks.

Respondents were asked what impact they felt leaving (whether it was Scotland leaving the Union or the UK leaving the EU) would have on their nation’s finances. The results show that approaching half (46 per cent) of Scots thought the country would suffer economically by voting to leave the UK compared to just over a third (34 per cent) of Britons who think the UK will be worse off if it left the EU. Furthermore, Brits are more likely to think that leaving the EU would make no difference to their national finances than Scots did when faced with the prospect of leaving the UK.

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While the economy is not the only issue that determines how people vote, among the Remain side in the EU referendum it is one of the only things that unites its broad coalition. On the Leave side, however, there is, broadly, one idea, one goal, one thing that unites all others – control. This is the theme that unites its arguments about immigration, spending, and sovereignty. It’s straight-forward and easily appropriated for whatever point they are making on a particular day.

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If the economy is taken out of the equation, what else is helping make people on the Remain side turnout to vote? If just a third of Brits believe that leaving the EU will make the UK worse off and a fifth think it would make them personally poorer, what is the motivation for the vast majority of Britons to vote to remain in the EU on June 23?

Given this challenge, it is clear that the Remain camp need to find ways to make the economic message resonate with the public. One would be to give “project fear” more relevance to people’s everyday lives; explain the ways that the EU effects them and their families both in the UK and abroad. As was seen in last week’s interview on Sky with David Cameron, the public are sceptical about what they see as “scaremongering”. As a result, the Remain camp should prepare for the failure of “project fear” and should instead give people a reason to vote remain that doesn’t rely on concern about the unknown.

The power of “it will probably be fine to vote leave but do I risk it” is, undoubtedly, a strong message but it’s one that has yet to fully resonate and, with less than three weeks to go, pinning all your hopes on this is a risky strategy. The good news for the Remain campaign is that it still has time to make the economy hit home with voters.

With the referendum campaign moving into its final weeks, the general public will start to properly pay attention. Allied to this is that the EU debate moves from the political pages and rolling news channels into prime time with a series of TV slots scheduled for the next two weeks. As we saw in the Scottish referendum, there can be a big movements as campaigns reach the home straight as voters finally and finely weigh the arguments one way and another.

Although at the moment it seems most likely that Remain and “project fear” will squeak over the line in the end, they may well look on this as a missed opportunity for Europhiles to make their case boldly and close down dissent for generations. As in Scotland, the relentless, narrow focus on the economy only emboldens the Leavers and the fight, far from being over, will continue to dominate political discussion for years, perhaps decades, to come. 

Laurence Janta-Lipinski is associate director of political research at YouGov.