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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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Tackling tuition fees may not be the vote-winner the government is hoping for

In theory, Theresa May is right to try to match Labour’s policy. But could it work?

Part of the art of politics is to increase the importance of the issues you win on and to decrease or neutralise the importance of the issues your opponent wins on. That's part of why Labour will continue to major on police cuts, as a device to make the usually Labour-unfriendly territory of security more perilous for the Tories.

One of the advantages the Conservatives have is that they are in government – I know it doesn't always look like it – and so they can do a lot more to decrease the importance of Labour's issues than the Opposition can do to theirs.

So the theory of Theresa May's big speech today on higher education funding and her announcement of a government review into the future of the university system is sound. Tuition fees are an area that Labour win on, so it makes sense to find a way to neutralise the issue.

Except there are a couple of problems with May's approach. The first is that she has managed to find a way to make a simple political question incredibly difficult for herself. The Labour offer is “no tuition fees”, so the Conservatives essentially either need to match that or move on. But the one option that has been left off the table is abolition, the only policy lever that could match Labour electorally.

The second, even bigger problem is that it it turns out that tuition fees might not have been the big election-moving event that we initially thought they were. The British Electoral Survey caused an earthquake of their own by finding that the “youthquake” – the increase in turn-out among 18-24-year-olds – never happened. Younger voters were decisive, both in how they switched to Labour and in the overall increase in turnout among younger voters, but it was in that slightly older 25-35 bracket (and indeed the 35-45 one as well) that the big action occurred.

There is an astonishingly powerful belief among the Conservative grassroots, such as it is, that Jeremy Corbyn's NME interview in which the he said that existing tuition fee debt would be “dealt with” was decisive. That belief, I'm told, extends all the way up to May's press chief, Robbie Gibb. Gibb is the subject of increasing concern among Tory MPs and ministers, who regularly ask journalists what they make of Robbie, if Robbie is doing alright, before revealing that they find his preoccupations – Venezuela, Corbyn's supposed pledge to abolish tuition fee debt – troublingly marginal.

Because the third problem is that any policy action on tuition fees comes at a huge cost to the Treasury, a cost that could be spent easing the pressures on the NHS, which could neutralise a Labour strength, or the financial strains on schools, another area of Labour strength. Both of which are of far greater concern to the average thirtysomething than what anyone says or does about tuition fees.

Small wonder that Team Corbyn are in an ebullient mood as Parliament returns from recess.

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.