FARAGE put the campaign to leave Europe before his party at his conference last week, writes Brian Monteith
Although the annual conference of Ukip attracted a smaller attendance in Doncaster at the weekend than this time last year it is far more likely to have a lasting impact on British politics.
By last September Douglas Carswell had already defected from the party and his colleague, Mark Reckless, was presented before the members by Nigel Farage as the latest MP to join the ranks. The conference was to be Ukip’s high water mark, for although Carswell and Reckless held their seats in the by-elections they forced and the party went on to attract nearly four million votes in the general election, Reckless lost and Farage did not get elected; Ukip was left with only Carswell as its sole parliamentarian.
Despite this decisive setback I found spirits in Doncaster running high. For while many of the erstwhile candidates have political wounds to lick they know that as early as next March there will be a referendum on membership of the European Union and they believe, with some justification, that it has been the presence of Ukip that has forced the Conservatives into making and then delivering upon that pledge. More importantly, they now believe that a vote to leave the EU can be won.
Although all campaigns have their ups and downs the positives have been with the EU-sceptics of late, giving them a skip in their step that was not there at the beginning of summer. Although Cameron’s election victory ensured there would be an EU referendum there was a fear that the advantages in favour of the political establishment were too high.
Then David Cameron was forced to retreat on two important aspects of the referendum process. Firstly the government had to back down on its plan to abandon purdah by officials and public appointees. Now Cameron is claiming, as if it had always been his view, that it is vital for democracy that the government machine does not takes sides in the last few months of the campaign. Next was the demand by the Electoral Commission that the question should not be phrased to elicit a “yes” or “no” answer but instead should require voters to state if they wish the UK to “stay” in or “leave” European Union.
To the disappointment of the Yes campaign – which had already launched in anticipation of a Yes/No question – Cameron accepted the new wording, ensuring there is no advantage to either side. Both campaigns can claim that they have the positive message to sell, they just have to craft it.
That is where the Ukip conference was especially significant, for it marked the point where practically all of the many EU-sceptic campaign groups came together to offer support for the non-party Brexit campaign called Leave.eu – a solidarity that has in the past proven to be stubbornly elusive. Organisations such as the Democracy Movement, the Bruges Group, Campaign for an Independent Britain, Get Britain Out, and Global Britain have all joined Leave.eu’s advisory board with the aim of achieving their common goal, when previously there had been much rivalry and mutual suspicion. To add to this new-found camaraderie Farage went further than merely offering support to Leave.eu, that was a given after all, instead he elevated the campaign’s importance above that of Ukip’s own immediate political ambitions, even though there are significant regional and national elections next year where it can be expected to make further gains.
Coming only a week after it became respectable again to be a EU-sceptic in the Labour Party, following Jeremy Corbyn’s election as its leader, the “Love Europe, Leave EU” campaign is growing fast with 120,000 having signed up to it since August.
Leave.eu is not, however, alone; later in October a second campaign to have the UK withdraw from the European Union is expected to be launched. This will be the progeny of Business For Britain, which over the last few years has called for significant reforms of the EU – including treaty change – but is now apparently convinced that the prime minister’s renegotiations are nothing other than a sham designed to fool the public while keeping the Conservative Party as united as possible. Many EU-sceptics have become increasingly distrustful of Business for Britain since the summer, fearing it has not been sufficiently robust over David Cameron’s negotiating position and taking too long to come to a view on choosing to stay or leave. Business for Britain’s strategy placed it at a disadvantage, its leadership being able to move only as fast as the slowest ship in its convoy of business supporters who wanted to wait and see what Cameron could extract from the EU.
That meant if it were left to them the campaign to leave would inevitably be slow to launch, possibly waiting months on Cameron’s deal being finalised, wasting valuable time that could be used to convince people that EU membership is going to become more expensive, more unaccountable and have more downsides than advantages. The pro-EU campaign – which believes in membership no matter how poor a deal Cameron negotiates – would be left with a free run and able to build up an unassailable momentum. It is this vacuum that has now been filled by Leave.eu, set up by businessmen Arron Banks, a former Conservative and then Ukip donor, and Richard Tice, a successful property developer and school governor.
By attracting established EU-sceptic campaign groups to help it, Leave.eu now has a head start and is now rolling out what it calls its retail approach, using social media and call centres to organise a bottom-up campaign that grows out of communities rather than what it sees as the Westminster bubble orientation of Business for Britain.
In due course the Electoral Commission will be required to appoint official campaign status for either side of the question and if the two largest groups advocating Brexit do not come together beforehand it will have to make a choice. In the meantime we can now expect to hear more of the arguments for why EU membership is no longer in our interests, irrespective of what Cameron is able to conjure up, including why for Scots the SNP’s case to be “independent in Europe” is as much a contradiction as William Hague’s “in Europe but not run by Europe” soundbite – and it won’t just be Nigel Farage making them.
• Brian Monteith is a director of Global Britain