Paris Gourtsoyannis: EU debate looks like Tory infighting

Referendum is turning into a confidence motion for David Cameron, with Boris Johnson laughing on the sidelines

Referendum is turning into a confidence motion for David Cameron, with Boris Johnson laughing on the sidelines

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And Labour votersare loathe to be drawn into what is increasingly seen as a battle for the leadership of the Conservatives, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis

It was one of the moments of the independence referendum, eight days before Scotland went to the polls. As the campaign reached its climax, in a rare glimpse of animation and emotion, David Cameron pleaded with voters to see the scale of the decision they faced – and take stock of the reasons they were making it.

He warned voters who were “fed up with the effing Tories” and wanted to “give them a kick” that they would have to live with the consequences of that decision for a long time – far longer than the next parliament.

He may have to dust off the message at some point before polling day in the EU referendum, because, judging from the past week, the queue of people wanting to give the Tories, and him personally, a good kick has grown. It now includes former friends in his own party looking to succeed him, as 23 June becomes a referendum on his leadership rather than a vote on Britain’s future in Europe.

On Thursday night’s live programme on Sky News, Mr Cameron faced the wrath of angry Eurosceptics for the first time in this campaign. Boom microphones picked up only some of the heckling from the audience, barely contained by Sky’s Kay Burley, damning Cameron as an austerity-loving scion of the establishment.

But the questions weren’t only from white working class voters you would expect to be hostile to a Prime Minister with threadbare excuses for breaking his promises on immigration. More worrying for the Remain campaign was the fact Ms Burley was upstaged by Soraya Bouazzaoui, a 20-something English literature student of Moroccan origin who may have secured a TV deal herself by interrupting the PM to accuse him of scaremongering waffle.

It’s been a while since the Prime Minister was face-to-face with that kind of hostility, and while he did well not to crumble, it doesn’t bode well for those who want to keep the UK in the EU. They need the left, particularly Labour supporters, to turn out in enough numbers to outvote those who have their minds made up on Europe, largely based on concerns over immigration, and have waited for years to cast their ballot.

But anyone claiming a bout of referendum fever was clearly one of those children who stuck the thermometer under their arm to try and hoodwink the school nurse when her back was turned. The arrival of the Remain battle bus in seaside towns this week has looked particularly forlorn.

It doesn’t help that Cameron’s supposed allies in the Remain camp have spent most of their time in front of microphones rubbishing his campaign. Nicola Sturgeon said warnings that Brexit risks sending the UK economy into recession were “overblown”, and Alex Salmond has also been reliably off-message, tantalising SNP supporters with the slim prospect of a second independence referendum within two years of a Brexit vote.

Jeremy Corbyn was called out by union leaders for his “half-hearted” support of Remain before he had a chance to swallow his decades-old dislike of the single market and give a set-piece speech in favour of EU membership. When it came, it was more about the disgust he felt at George Osborne’s “prophecies of doom” than his enthusiasm for the EU.

Labour supporters are understandably confused: 45 per cent don’t even know what their party’s position is, according to a poll published this week.

It was telling that the biggest cheer at the Corbyn event wasn’t for any of the arguments to stay in the EU, but rather when a journalist, who dared to ask why Corbyn hadn’t been more active in the campaign, was ticked off by the Labour leader. The applause was soon followed by hisses for the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg before she even began her question.

Corbynistas were also quick to condemn Sadiq Khan on Twitter and Facebook after he campaigned to Remain alongside the de facto figurehead of the Remain campaign, David Cameron. Sources in Scottish Labour tell me they weren’t particularly impressed with the image of Better Together redux, despite the fact that it made the news and reminded people there was a referendum on.

No, on the list of battles the Labour membership is eager to pick, fighting Brexit is below attacking Tories, journalists, and each other.

If party leaders can’t summon the will to campaign for Remain, spare a thought for the activists who, particularly in Scotland, are exhausted. Party machines north of the Border are starting to grind into gear, with SNP MPs and ministers appearing at campaign events this week and Labour staging an action day this weekend, but a month and a half since elections across much of the country, they are stretched. Even the political journalists sound a bit weary.

The only genuine enthusiasm on display this week was from Boris Johnson and his band of pro-Brexit ministers, who put forward Ukip’s immigration policy as their own. Despite protests to the contrary, it’s hard to avoid the impression that they are already setting out an alternative Tory manifesto for a post-referendum leadership race.

None of this gives Labour supporters any reason to turn out to vote to Remain. Increasingly we’re hearing about the risk to the EU Social Chapter on workers’ rights in the Maastricht Treaty, which John Major originally opted out of and which some on the right want to scrap. But fighting the referendum as a prologue to the next general election is problematic, too, because it asks left-wing voters to cast votes for a cause they are ambivalent about to protect a Prime Minister they loathe.

“Sometimes because it is an election people can think it is like a general election,” Mr Cameron said about the independence referendum two years ago. “This is totally different decision to a general election. This is a decision about not the next five years. It is a decision about the next century.”

The same could be said now. The prospect of leaving the EU as a means of ousting a Tory Prime Minister seems a messy and potentially costly way to settle the succession of the Conservative Party.

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