As I See It
Has the Sun just won it for the Leave Campaign?
Britain faces one of its most important decisions in living memory, one that may affect everything from defence procurement to holiday pay (according to the politicians).
But ever since the gun was fired on the campaign the outcome has rested on one issue – immigration.
It was a debate that could have swung in favour of the Remain lobby if they had argued the case intelligently, setting out the contribution that incomers make at both ends of the economy, from menial tasks such as potato picking, to filling top jobs in our science labs and engineering works.
When that “record” 333,000 figure was published, with “warnings” that similar numbers will be arriving once the Albanians, Turks and others sign up for the EU, the Remain campaigners were looking like losers in a one-ticket raffle. The marauders were already at the gates ready to invade.
Since then the Prime Minister and his allies have been on the back foot. George Osborne has loyally campaigned alongside him, but the Tories have been split – and it could be irrevocable – as have Labour whose leader has struggled to show any real conviction in support of the Remain campaign.
By and large, business leaders have thrown their weight behind staying in the EU. BT is writing to its employees urging them to vote Remain, and a Scottish Engineering survey of more than 400 companies resulted in 78% of respondents favouring the status quo, and just 6% wishing to exit.
But business, too, is divided. Former British Chambers of Commerce boss John Longworth has made more of a name for himself fighting for the Leavers than he ever did in his previous role.
More importantly, the pro-business majority for staying in the EU is not reflected among the wider public and polls suggest the Leave campaign is edging ahead.
Rupert Murdoch, through The Sun is now applying the finishing touches. The paper today urges its readers to “leave this relentlessly expanding German dominated federal state.” It says that remaining in the EU would leave Britain “powerless to cut mass immigration which keeps wages low and puts catastrophic pressure on our schools, hospitals, roads and housing stock.”
So, there we have it. Vote Leave and the barriers to entry will go up.
Or will they? Is this just another deception presented as a “fact”? Of course it is. No one will stop immigration, nor will they want to. There are labour and skills shortages across the economy and unless we want to starve companies of these vital resources we will need to encourage incomers.
Why hasn’t the Remain campaign made more of this? Because it has been badly led.
On Monday I was discussing with a high-ranking Scottish business leader who really runs – or leads – Britain, and British opinion, and we were in agreement that David Cameron has failed the test of leadership.
The only thing the Prime Minister has led is a badly-advised campaign of fear and outrageous predictions about the implications of a Brexit, from how much our homes will fall in value to the prospect of World War 3.
A true leader would have faced up to the eurosceptics in his party and set out a vision for where he wanted to take the country. As he believes in continued membership of the EU, he should have made that a commitment to while he is in Downing Street.
Instead, he has abdicated responsibility for running Britain and handed a key decision to a largely bemused public who resemble ill-prepared students cramming for an exam they didn’t expect to sit.
Referendums may be seen as the ultimate democratic exercise, but in truth they are used when politicians want to excuse themselves of blame when they get the wrong answer. How can the public be expected to make a decision on such a complex issue? Who even knows the name of their MEP, let alone how the EU’s institutions work?
I have seen warnings that a Brexit vote would mean British football clubs would no longer play in the Champions League, even that Britain could not compete in the Eurovision contest. Are these made up? Or did someone really make such silly statements?
No wonder the public is resorting to a vote based on the one issue – immigration – that is visible and easily understood. Even if it is for the wrong reason.
Just as we expect our managers to manage and our teachers to teach, the public elects political leaders to lead. That lack of leadership has been evident across the political spectrum, from Jeremy Corbyn’s lacklustre display, to Cameron’s fact-fest about war and pensions, and so on, which has only made him look foolish.
I have been reporting on political campaigns since the early 1980s and few others have been as important as this one. That’s because there is no option to reverse the decision in five years’ time. Either way, we are making a potentially life-changing decision.
Consider this, it may also be David Cameron’s last full week in office as Prime Minister, given that his position may become untenable if the Leave campaign is victorious.
A general election in the Autumn? Don’t rule it out. Nor should we rule out the ensuing battles for the souls of the Conservative and Labour parties.
So, Mr Cameron’s decision to call the referendum may have implications far beyond an in-or-out vote. Apart from also putting political careers on the line it has contributed to uncertainty in the markets, wiping £67 billion off the value of the FTSE100 companies in the last three days alone, prompting a fall in sterling, and a slowdown – according to some surveys – in investment.
We are heading into the most crucial week of the year and of this parliament. And we are doing so on the back of the most acrimonious, divisive and least credible campaign that I can recall.
Good luck, Britain.