Just a year has passed since Ed Balls and Vince Cable fell victim to George Osborne’s Conservatives. Today, in a remarkable twist, the Chancellor’s vanquished opponents joined him on stage in defence of the EU.
“Ed Balls, Vince Cable and I are from different political parties,” Osborne, speaking at Stansted Airport, began. “We fought each other at the last general election with different economic arguments and we’ve clashed repeatedly in the House of Commons over the years. But there’s one thing we all agree on. And it’s that it would be a huge mistake for Britain to leave the EU and to leave the Single Market”.
The Remain campaign, which recently published a photograph of David Cameron, Neil Kinnock and Paddy Ashdown phonebanking together, believes that there is power in such odd alliances. They signal to voters that this is a cause that transcends ordinary partisan divisions. If men who have disagreed on so much can agree on this, strategists say, the undecided will start to suspect that EU supporters have a point.
The Leave campaign is no less confident that such interventions serve its cause. This tripartisan alliance, it says, is confirmation of an establishment stitch-up. Politicians of all parties are prepared to unite in defence of a project that serves their interests but not those of the people.
In his address, Osborne directly confronted this argument. “They say it’s all a massive conspiracy. So that’s everyone from Mark Carney to Christine Lagarde, to Barack Obama, to the entire editorial team at ITV, the staff at the IMF and the OECD, to hundreds of economists, a majority of leaders of small, medium and large firms – they think they’re all part of some global stitch up to give misinformation to the British people.
“The next thing we know the Leave camp will be accusing us all of faking the moon landings, kidnapping Shergar, and covering up the existence of the Loch Ness monster.
“The response to the sober economic warnings from around the world by those who want to leave the EU has not been credible or serious.
“There is a reason the three of us are standing here today, putting aside our very obvious differences.
“It’s not a conspiracy – it’s called a consensus.”
Balls similarly asserted that he and Cable had no hidden agenda. They were more likely to appear on The Great British Bake Off or Strictly Come Dancing than return to the House of Commons, he quipped.
Brexit supporters draw comfort from the frequently voiced view that this is an “anti-establishment age”, one in which voters no longer trust or respect authority figures. Yet if that were truly the case, Scotland would not have voted to remain in the UK and the Conservatives would not have won a majority at the last general election. In both cases, it was economic arguments that proved decisive. The Chancellor’s hope is that his sepulchral warnings will prove no less effective on this occasion. Leave’s declaration that it would not seek membership of the European single market has given Osborne and his allies an even greater target.
Despite the heavy artillery deployed by Remain in recent weeks, the race has remained tight (though phone polls have tended to give In a comfortable lead). The hope of EU supporters is that its attacks are having a grinding, attritional effect that will eventually prove fatal. As Balls and Cable can testify, they may well be right.