The official campaign period is only supposed to last for 10 weeks. But the starting gun was effectively fired as soon as Cameron secured his EU deal and the “gang of 6” cabinet ministers (+Boris) marched out.
With almost 18 weeks until the June 23rd poll, the PM was soon in full campaigning mode – strutting in his shirt sleeves on a makeshift stage at the O2 headquarters in Slough.
Here is Headland’s take on how each side has fared during the opening skirmishes:
The Prime Minister had full use of the European stage for the drama of the deal-making. As the talks dragged on, the tension increased. This worked to Cameron’s advantage. He was able to unveil his deal after what appeared to be a proper struggle with the forces of Brussels.
The Remain campaign knows that the minutiae of the UK’s new settlement probably won’t sway many votes. A tiny percentage of aficionados will worry about whether the ‘brake on in-work benefits’ lasts for 7 years or 13 years.
But the PM had pretty much the story he wanted – battling hard for Britain abroad and winning a package that his campaign can plausibly suggest has genuine significance.
There’s no denying the serious blow of losing Gove and Boris to team Brexit. Without those two defections, the Remain campaign would be in a very comfortable position now.
The clear recommendation by a Prime Minister, his government (and most of his cabinet) is still however the strongest card Remain has. Use of the civil service to dig out documents and supply statistics is another key advantage. Cameron’s sharp dismissal of Boris (I have no agenda) showed the PM summoning all the pomp and authority of office to swot his rival.
Will Straw (Labour, son of Jack and Director of Britain Stronger In) has been working closely with the Downing Street communications unit on campaign strategy. They know the referendum will be decided not by who voters like, but whom they trust.
In a contest that is sometimes seen as ‘establishment vs anti-establishment’, each side needs to play to its respective strengths. Straw’s team have worked hard to secure key endorsements.
Core tactics in week 1: the FTSE CEOs letter in the Times and the former generals’ appeal in the Telegraph. The “Cameron Direct” style event in Slough was an old trick, but he did it well and at least it gave the broadcasters some pictures.
The “stronger, safer, better off” message is simple and, they believe, effective. In a contest between hope and fear, the Remain side will want to play on voters’ fear of the unknown
The falling pound will be broadly welcomed by team Cameron. It perfectly illustrates to voters the risks of flirting with the exit. But it will also be making them nervous – showing just how much closer this referendum has suddenly become.
The decision by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove to pitch their tents in the Brexit camp electrified the referendum campaign. The combination of Boris’ popular appeal and Gove’s persuasive intellect gives the ‘outers’ what they were sorely lacking – credible figureheads.
The nerves in the financial markets and the falling pound were the clearest indications that the Leave campaign has suddenly gone from a group of rank outsiders to genuine contenders. The fact that the Cabinet dissenters bring establishment credentials certainly changes the balance of the contest.
But once the initial fizz of the announcement fades, will Boris really win over a decisive share of the undecideds? As the FT’s Janan Ganesh put it this week with typical style “Voters like Boris, but they like Judi Dench too”.
Clearly Michael Gove thinks the possibility of legal challenge to Cameron’s deal is an important weakness for the PM. But for every lawyer who believes it, Remain can find someone credible who doesn’t.
One thing does seem to have changed, though. It’s harder and harder for the pro-EU side to give their opponents the ‘little Englander’ tag with its nationalist and xenophobic associations. Leave has become more respectable in mainstream political circles. You can be pro-Leave and outward-looking and even pro-Europe (in terms of culture and trade).
All of this will delight Dominic Cummings, director of Vote Leave. A divisive yet clever individual, Cummings thinks banging on about immigration will be the surest way to lose this referendum. Those who feel strongly about that issue (and blame the EU) are already onside.
The arguments that seem to be playing well for the Leave campaign are about “taking back control”, “winning back freedoms” and “getting our money back”. But framed within an optimistic narrative of how returning sovereignty could be beneficial and enriching.
Team Brexit need to work harder on broadcast. Interviews in offices or on Boris’ doorstep won’t inspire. The photo-opp with the gang of six holding up a big piece of cardboard was pretty uninspiring.
For the journalist, Brexit is currently a more exciting story than Bremain and one might expect the Boris bandwagon to gather momentum in the early stages of the campaign. The fear for Leave, though, is that an increasing number of voters will take a better-the-devil-you-know view as polling day approaches.