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22 April 2016

The Brexit brigade are mishandling Barack Obama’s visit – but that helps them, not Remain

If the referendum looks like a foregone conclusion for Remain, it boosts the chances of a British exit. 

By Stephen Bush

As Sam Elliott observes in The Big Lebowski, sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar eats you.

For Britain’s Leave campaigners, Barack Obama’s visit was always going to be a week when the bar ate them. There’s nothing they can do to compete with Obama, either on popularity – he consistently achieves approval ratings in the high-70s in Britain – or credibility – he’s the President of the United States.

But you can go down with dignity or in flames, and Vote Leave has opted for the latter. Boris Johnson – their best weapon – has done himself few favours with his suggestion that Obama is motivated by “ancestral” dislike of Britain due to his Kenyan father.  It would have been far better to put out a generic statement about it being a matter for the British people, not least as it would have futureproofed their campaign somewhat against Marine Le Pen’s forthcoming visit in support of a Leave vote.

It all feeds into the Brexiteers’ biggest problem – that they come across as a weird and oddly fanatical sect that it is out of touch with ordinary people.

But, paradoxically, a bad day for the Brexit brigade could make their chances of winning higher. It seems likely – and certainly both campaigns believe this to be so – that if turnout for the referendum is close to that of a general election, then the result will be that Britain stays in the European Union by a heavy margin. But both sides know that that the number of people who are desperate to get out of the EU, no matter what, is far larger than the number who are desperate to stay in.

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A foregone conclusion will also make charities and businesses less keen to put their heads above the parapet and warn against the dangers of a Brexit vote, as well as likely hitting turnout. Muffing their  response to Obama may well pay dividends for Leave campaigners.