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How the Brexit campaign lied to us – and got away with it

The Leave camp promised us all a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a pony.

Whenever something cataclysmic happens in politics, there’s a temptation to trace it back to a single moment that set everything in motion: the shot heard around the world. Or, in the case of the night in the Commons bar where Eric Joyce lamped a fellow MP, prompting a fishy by-election in Falkirk that led to a fundamental reform of the Labour party rules, which enabled the election of Jeremy Corbyn, the punch that changed politics.

You can’t always identify the flap of the butterfly’s wings that creates a hurricane. The EU referendum result was driven by many factors: class, geography, differential turnout, culture and education. Even the broad conclusions – more older voters turned out and they were heavily pro-Brexit; cities went for Remain – must be qualified: why was Liverpool a win for Remain while Sunderland picked Leave?

If there is one sentence that explains the referendum result, though, it’s this one from the website of the Advertising Standards Agency. “For reasons of freedom of speech, we do not have remit over non-broadcast ads where the purpose of the ad is to persuade voters in a local, national or international electoral referendum.” In other words, political advertising is exempt from the regulation that would otherwise bar false claims and outrageous promises. You can’t claim that a herbal diet drink will make customers thinner, but you can claim that £350m a week will go to the NHS instead of the European Union.

The brains behind the Leave victory discovered this loophole in their earlier incarnation as the NoToAV campaign, promising that the cost of a new voting system would deprive babies in incubators or squaddies in Afghanistan of a spurious figure plucked from the air. And they got away with it.

Will they pull off the same trick again? It was noticeable how quickly the twin planks of the Leave campaign – extra money for the health service, and the implicit promise to cut immigration by “taking back control” of our borders – fell apart. On Good Morning Britain just hours after the result was declared, Nigel Farage decried the NHS pledge as a “mistake” (he was not part of the official Leave campaign that made it).

That evening, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan told Newsnight that “taking back control” of immigration didn’t necessarily mean cutting it. He advocated joining the single market: meaning that if Turkey does join the EU, Britain will be obliged to accept freedom of movement for its citizens. And we won’t have a veto on Turkish accession. (When we leave the EU, we will also lose automatic access to the scheme by which failed asylum-seekers are returned to the country in which they first claimed sanctuary.)

The first few days after the referendum felt like an extended period of gaslighting – being told that things you could distinctly remember happening had not, in fact, happened. How could anyone think that the Leave campaign had promised an extra £350m for the NHS? The money was “an extrapolation . . . never total”, said Iain Duncan Smith on the BBC. It was merely part of a “series of possibilities of what you could do”. My eyes flicked from his pious face to Twitter, where someone had posted a picture of him standing next to the campaign bus. Its slogan read: “We send the EU £350m a week. Let’s fund the NHS instead.” Then I looked at the pinned Tweet for the chief executive of Vote Leave, Matthew Elliott, which reads: “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week.” These people promised us a unicorn and now claim they merely hinted at the possibility of a Shetland pony.

More gaslighting was to come in Boris Johnson’s announcement, made through the impeccably democratic, anti-elitist medium of his £250,000-a-year Telegraph column. Of course, we would retain access to the single market, said Johnson. Britons would be allowed to travel and live freely wherever they wanted in Europe, while we could also “take back democratic control of immigration policy, with a balanced and humane points-based system to suit the needs of business and industry”. Unfortunately, to use a phrase beloved by my dad, if Johnson thinks Angela Merkel will give the UK everything we want without giving anything back, he must be crackers.

The debate about free movement will dominate politics all summer, as the Tory leadership contest runs until 2 September. The future direction of the country will be seen through the prism of tactical advantage within the Conservatives. A split is already emerging on the right: Michael Gove, who promised withdrawal from the single market during the campaign, has aligned himself with Johnson. On 28 June, sources close to Johnson said he had been “tired” when he wrote the column, and it would be “vetted” to avoid mixed messages in future.

For the Tories, an unappealing choice lies ahead. It looks as though Britain’s economy is already contracting, thanks to the uncertainty brought on by Brexit. Their 2015 Tory election campaign, which asserted that Ed Miliband was a “threat” to our economic
security, feels blackly humorous.

Some of the pain could be mitigated if Britain accepted a deal close to what we have now. But is that what people voted for? The Leave campaign told voters over and over that mass immigration was frightening and it should be curtailed, and that public services were about to be pumped full of cash clawed back from Brussels. Right now, it’s the Remainers who are angry. But what happens when those who backed Brexit to get back at the political class discover that they have been taken for a ride?

The Leave campaign won by pretending there are simple answers to our problems. They spurned nuance, compromise and trade-offs. They won an astonishing and unexpected victory. But at what price? 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies

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Nick Timothy’s defence of Theresa May raises more questions than it answers

It would be better for May’s reputation if she had known about those vans.

Nick Timothy makes an eyebrow-raising claim in his Telegraph column today: that Theresa May opposed the notorious “Go Home” vans that trundled through diverse parts of the country advising illegal immigrants to leave the country – actually claiming she went as far as to block them – but the scheme was “revived and approved” in a press plan while she was on holiday.

Some people are assuming that this story is flatly untrue, and not without good reason. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has dug out a written answer from Amber Rudd saying that while Mark Harper, a junior Home Office minister, approved the vans, he informed May of the scheme ahead of time. The timeframe also stretches credulity somewhat. This is the same government department that having decided to destroy the landing cards of Windrush Britons in June 2009, still had yet to locate a shredder by October 2010. Whitehall takes years to approve advertising campaigns and even the process of hiring a van is not simple: so it stretches credulity a tad to imagine that the Home Office would sign off a poster, hire a van and a driver, all without it either coming across the desk of the Home Secretary or her special advisor. That no official faced dismissal as a result stretches it further still.

However, it is worth noting that Mark Harper, the minister who approved the vans, was the only serving minister to have worked with May at the Home Office who did not continue on in government when she became Prime Minister – instead, she sacked him from his post. The Home Office acting off its own bat would support the belief, not uncommon among civil servants at other Whitehall departments, that Britain’s interior ministry is out of control: that it regularly goes further than its ministerial mandate and that it has an institutional dislike of the people it deals with day to day. So while it seems unlikely that the vans reached the streets without May or her advisors knowing, it is not impossible.

However, that raises more questions than it answers. If you take the Timothy version of events as true, that means that May knew the following things about the Home Office: that they were willing to not only hide the facts from ministers but to actively push ahead with policy proposals that the Secretary of State had dropped. Despite knowing that, she championed a vast increase in the powers and scope of the Home Office in the 2014 Immigration Act and at the peak of her powers in 2016 did the same as Prime Minister. She made no effort to address this troubling culture for the remaining three years she served as Home Secretary, and promoted three of her juniors, none of whom appear to have done anything to address it either, to big jobs across the government. It means that she had little grip over her department an no inclination to assert it. (Indeed, this is why the Secretary of State is held responsible even for decisions that they don’t sign off – as otherwise you have no democratic accountability at all.)

If those vans were sprung on May and her political team, that is even more troubling than the idea that they approved them.

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