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20 April 2016

The facts are on his side. The press isn’t. Welcome to the left, David Cameron

The battle to keep Britain in the European Union is the first away fixture of the Prime Minister's career. 

By Stephen Bush

Britain’s band of Brexiteers like to complain that the battlefield is stacked against them, and they’re right. On the side of staying in the European Union you have Britain’s four living prime ministers, the International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, the vast majority of the Labour and Liberal Democratic parties, the Trades Union Congress, the CBI, Britain’s three largest trade unions, and the President of the United States. Leave has Boris Johnson and the contested ghost of Margaret Thatcher.

Yet few people (except bookmakers) expect as overwhelming a victory for Remain as suggested by the balance of forces arranged on either side. Why not? Well, as one Conservative politician quipped, it’s “hard being on the left” – and Remain, despite securing the endorsements of a number of Conservative politicians, has all the challenges usually faced by leftwing political campaigns.

Senior strategists at Britain Stronger In Europe, the cross-party campaign to keep Britain in the European Union, believe that just five newspapers will give them a fair hearing: the Times, the Guardian, the i, the Mirror and the FT. For veterans of Ed Miliband’s doomed assault on Downing Street, that list is uncomfortably similar to one that his spin doctors might have drawn up – minus the now-online only Independent and with the addition of the Times, which Tom Baldwin, who Miliband poached from that paper to brief the press, treated with suspicion and disdain. That’s not a new problem, even Tony Blair in his pomp only ever added the Sun to that list.  

The broadcasters are little help to Remain in getting their message across: they take their lead from the print press when drawing up the news agenda, and are further stymied by their commitment to the illusory idea of “balance”. This idea means that every debate on Europe between economists must feature one who believes leaving the EU would be a disaster for Britain, and one who believes it will be a liberation. And that, of course, does not represent the balance of opinion between economists overall.  

Something similar happened with George Osborne’s warnings about the impact of a Leave vote on the British economy. There is a lively debate about Osborne’s figures, that much is true. But the debate is whether or not the impact of Brexit would be bleak or simply bad. Very few serious economic commentators believe the sunlit uplands envisaged by Vote Leave are only one vote away.

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That the illusion of balance skews debate, and forsakes evidence in favour of pure oppositionalism, is one that journalists are accustomed from hearing from the left. It is somewhat rarer to hear it from the centre-right. David Cameron is now vulnerable to the same forces which helped his “long term economic plan” beat Ed Miliband’s election message.

And it’s not just the press. The voters that the Prime Minister needs are not his natural constituency. A recent study by the London School of Economics underlined the problem: support for staying in the European Union is strongest in Hackney, Oxford, Brighton, Bristol and Edinburgh’s Morningside district. In other words, the parts of the country that backed Miliband, Caroline Lucas, the Scottish Labour party and the Alternative Vote. If, that is, they voted at all.

Cameron’s victory in the general election came off the backs of the affluent elderly, who were undersampled in the pre-election polls and backed his party by large margins. He was strongest in places like Staffordshire which are now firmly in the Brexit camp. Again, Cameron is hoist on his own petard. Flushed with their victory, the Conservatives have done their utmost to reduce the number of Labour-inclined voters on the electoral register – for example by ending the automatic registration of students at their parents’ address. At the time, they reasoned that when the voices of the elderly and the most-likely to vote are amplified, that aids the Tories.

Unfortunately, now, it aids the wrong Tories – at least from Cameron’s perspective. When the votes of the elderly and the committed are amplified, so too are the chances of a Leave vote.

A referendum at the start of the summer, less than two months after one set of elections, now looks less like a political masterstroke and more like hara-kiri. Adam Drummond, a pollster with Opinium, forecasts that turnout in the referendum will be anywhere between 45 per cent and 55 per cent. Turnout will decide the result, with anything below 50 per cent suggesting a victory for Brexit.

Stronger In are betting big on mobilising early in student areas, as the biggest dividing line in the referendum is not age but education – graduates are far more likely to back staying in the European Union, while non-graduates are more inclined to exit. Having recruited Craig Elder and Tom Edmonds, the duo credited with the Conservatives’ mastery on Facebook during the election, they are hoping that the techniques that allowed the Tory party to rack up votes in crucial marginal seats will boost turnout among supporters of Remain. Their chances are better than they look – several Labour veterans of the 2015 campaign, now working at Stronger In, have been astonished to realize how much further ahead their Conservative rivals are in terms of getting their message out through Facebook, a platform that one Labour strategist believes will be the most important outside of the BBC by the next election.  

For Cameron, his fate will not be decided in 2020 but in June 2016, and it now hangs on the very votes he and Osborne have done their best to disappear. Having made history with his unexpected majority, Cameron is now doing it again – he is the first Conservative leader to lie awake at night worrying that his voters won’t make it to the polling station, that the press are not amplifying his messages, and that his enemies are fighting an easier battle than he is. Having won back-to-back victories playing at home, the Cameroon right could yet come unstuck with its first genuine away fixture.

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