Whilst supporters of Britain’s exit from the European Union seem to be on a little bit of a roll at the moment, they cannot win a campaign without economics. The TV debates between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage were a resounding success for the UKIP leader. Neither Farage’s conspiracy theories on Syria nor his reprehensible comments about Vladimir Putin had any noticeable effect on the viewers as Farage won both debates by big margins.
In addition, congratulations must go to Iain Mansfield, the diplomat who won the IEA’s Brexit prize. In Mansfield’s judgement, if the UK follows his plan after a vote to leave the EU, there could be a small boost of 0.1% to GDP; others of course will have different estimations. However, if what comes from Mansfield’s paper and from Farage’s TV debate victories is that supporters of Brexit try to neutralise the issue of the economic impact from withdrawal, then they are left to talk about issues of less importance to the public.
In the Times, Nigel Lawson argues that Mansfield’s paper shows that “British jobs are safe – in or out of Europe”. However, Better-Off-Outers must surely realise that arguing that Brexit is not an economic issue but a political issue would be utterly inadequate for most voters. Clegg is of course absurd to claim that all the jobs dependent on trade with EU countries would be at risk if we left but the impact on jobs would still be key in a referendum campaign.
The ‘In’ campaign would argue that because 4.2 million jobs are associated with trade with the EU, Brexit would put at risk at least some of those jobs. The ‘Out’ campaign would be left with the less compelling message that employment is not an issue either way but there are other reasons to vote for Brexit. If the choice is between the ‘In’ side that says it will defend your job and your pay packet and the ‘Out’ side that says it will restore national sovereignty, then the ‘In’ side will win. Whilst the latter is of course important, it is nonetheless more abstract and unlikely to be a decisive argument. Only if the ‘Out’ campaign can argue that there would be clear economic benefits in leaving could it compete in a referendum. Ultimately, the campaign with jobs and wages on its side will win.
This is of particular importance because even after Clegg’s trouncing and even with a significant narrowing, viewers of the second debate were almost exactly split over the impact of Brexit on the economy; 39% thought it would be bad for jobs and investment and 38% thought it would be good.
Of course this says nothing of the fact that many businesses and their representatives in favour of British membership of a reformed EU have yet to properly enter the debate. Claiming that the economics of Brexit is not important would be folly in the face of a determined ‘In’ campaign. Moreover, if a referendum takes place in the context of renegotiated terms of our membership, YouGov polling shows overwhelming support to stay in the EU. Of course, this depends on the type of renegotiation but the uncomfortable reality for Better-Off-Outers is that as it stands, most people support the Prime Minister’s position which is to stay in a reformed, looser and more competitive EU.
If supporters of Brexit then attempt to neutralise economics rather than arguing that withdrawal would have a clear, positive boost to jobs and living standards then they have no chance of winning a referendum.