EU referendum debate: Remain's ruthless assault on Boris could backfire

Turning the referendum into a vote on the most popular politician in the country may only embolden Leave. 

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From the minute tonight's EU debate began it was "Get Boris". In a remarkable attack on her fellow Conservative, Energy Secretary Amber Rudd (spoken of by MPs as a potential leadership candidate), declared: “The only number Boris is interested in is No.10”. She ended on a no less ruthless note: "He's the life and soul of the party but he’s not the man you want driving you home at the end of the evening.”

In between, her Remain partners maintained the Blitzkrieg. "You only care about one job and that's your next one," jibed Angela Eagle. "I wouldn’t trust Boris Johnson with the NHS as far as I could throw him," warned Nicola Sturgeon. The clear intention was to rattle the only man on the stage, forcing him to overreach. But Johnson didn't take the bait. Sticking tightly to Vote Leave's "Take Back Control" script, he derided "the personal stuff" and affected nonchalance: "I missed the insult". Rather than responding in kind, Johnson turned his opponents' own words against them. David Cameron, he reminded the audience, had last year derided those who argued that the UK wouldn't be "okay" outside the EU. He recited Nicola Sturgeon's denunciation of "Project Fear" during the Scottish referendum and accused her of lining up with its successor. 

By attacking Johnson so starkly, Remain unambiguously put him on the ballot. But it is a tactic that risks backfiring. Though his stock has fallen among the media, Johnson remains the country's most popular politician, one who polls show is more trusted (yes, trusted) than Cameron on the EU. The message "vote Leave, get Boris" could prove to be the 2016 equivalent of 2005's "vote Blair, get Brown" (a line the Tories withdrew when it attracted, rather than repelled, voters). Far better for Remain to frame the polarising Nigel Farage - electoral halitosis to swing voters - as Leave's true leader.

In a two-hour debate, which sagged after the first half, neither side emerged triumphant. But Leave had the edge. Labour backbencher Gisela Stuart delivered the most astute performance, casting herself as a voice of wisdom and experience. "There’s only one expert that matters, it’s you the voter," she declared, a line that was no less potent for being untrue.

The facts, of course, were on Remain's side. Australia's points-based system sees it take proportionately twice as many immigrants as the UK. Britain doesn't contribute £350m a week to the EU (once the rebate and grants are included, the net figure is £150m). Both the economy and the NHS would be weakened, rather than strengthened, by Brexit. But referendums are not decided by facts alone. Tonight, it was Leave's warnings that Remain had "no plan" to control immigration, or to tame an "unelected superstate", that were undeniably potent. And having spared no ammunition against Johnson, Remain risks only enhancing his aura of invincibility. 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

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