Seldom in politics is there such an outcome as unalloyed victory. Indeed, “victory” may be the least appropriate word to use when the result of the EU referendum battle becomes known.
Relief there will certainly be. After saturation TV coverage, millions of us could not only predict the arguments by the end but also the counterpoints and rebuttals before they were uttered.
Such has been the nature of this battle – its scratchy debates, its exchange of slogans, its dog whistle blowing and its relentless resort to fears, alarms and scary premonitions – that many political reputations will take time to recover, if they ever do.
So who are the individual winners, and who the losers? This battle has exacted a high price in terms of political credibility and trust. Voter scepticism over politicians and confidence in so-called “official” predictions and projections has taken an enormous battering over the past three months.
Individual “winners” by the close were thin on the ground. On the Remain side Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson emerged as a widely acclaimed performer in the final TV debate and her star continues to rise as a Scottish politician of talent and promise.
Almost equally well acclaimed in the final debate was Labour mayor of London Sadiq Khan – a powerful advocate for Remain. Labour’s Alan Johnson was another effective Remain campaigner, reminding us, once again, what a persuasive and disarming Labour Party leader he would have made. Ken Clarke posted a memo item on the formidable political bruiser he continues to be. Angela Eagle, Labour shadow secretary for business, innovation and skills, also campaigned well for Remain and, in terms of her profile, was a “winner”.
What of Prime Minister David Cameron? Unlike his predecessor Harold Wilson in the 1975 referendum, Cameron did not stand back or above the fray but from the start not only backed the Remain campaign but was its undisputed cheerleader.
Given that the issue of Europe will continue to divide voter opinion long after this referendum battle is over, he put his full political reputation and legacy on the line. Anything other than a heavy majority in favour of Remain will leave him with big problems, both with his claim to be a “One Nation” leader and particularly his ability to re-unite a deeply divided Conservative Party.
Of the seven points of his re-negotiation achievement, we heard little. Now the substance will be put to the test. Throughout the campaign we heard the silver-tongued dissemblage of a silky public relations operator: an ability to say one thing but mean quite another, a masterclass of unctuous assertion and reverse-pleading.
Chancellor George Osborne never tired of dire warnings of what would befall us if we voted Leave. This culminated in an outline of a post Brexit vote budget which would address a putative recession with tax increases and spending cuts. It was an appalling abuse of his position. If ever a budget proposal was calculated to induce a recession, this was it. Not even a Remain majority will restore the damage to his standing and credibility. Even in “victory” the chancellor will emerge as a loser.
Nicola Sturgeon did not have a comfortable campaign, and the longer it went on the more that pro Brexit voices within the SNP came to the fore, Jim Sillars being a late but worthwhile entrant. The First Minister’s final week musings that an independent Scotland might adopt the euro surfaced without any hint of irony: our interest rates and monetary policy set in diversity-loving Frankfurt? How very strange.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn limped on in the “Loser’”lane. How much more credible he would have been had he remained true to his long-standing doubts over the EU and spoke out accordingly. For if the EU was so progressive and worker friendly, why has it tolerated such a high degree of unemployment for so long? When Remain is bankrolled by Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, the Left is right to be sceptical.
Boris Johnson’s rumbustious campaigning style reinforced his abilities as a crowd-puller and powerful advocate of Leave while avoiding charges of racism over immigration. But did he advance his chances as a future Conservative leader? English voters may like a clown, but Scots prefer their politics on the serious side.
The dark horse to watch remains Theresa May, who formally backed Remain but avoided the frontline and carefully kept her powder dry. She may well emerge as a major “winner”.
Michael Gove acquitted himself and raised his standing, both nationally and within the divided ranks of the Conservative Party: a winner, whatever the outcome. Daniel Hannan remains in obscurity as an MEP and deserves to be brought to bolster the party at Westminster.
Nigel Farage can hardly be termed a Loser considering that he led Ukip from nowhere to force the PM into a referendum. He held up against interview scrutiny by Andrew Neil, but the controversial “immigrant queue” poster backfired badly. By the end he had become an unsparing target for the BBC as he focused on immigration, struggling to get a word in against Norman Smith and BBC Radio Four Nick Robinson’s machine gun interruptions.
As for the BBC itself, was its coverage a winner? The mass Question Time with 6,000 partisans at Wembley Arena came far too late for a debate that could inform or educate. By that time there was little more than slogan-swapping greeted with audience whooping, jeering and booing: just the sort of reaction that enabled the Corporation’s panjandrums to bemoan the angry, intolerant mood of public debate in Britain today. What on earth did they expect from such a gladiatorial set-up?
And let’s quickly pass over (oh, please, very quickly) the star appearance of Sir Bob Geldof with the crude V-sign gestures, and that Isaiah Berlin of modern political thought, the one and only Eddie Izzard.
Finally, what of the EU itself and its champions? Was the EU a “winner”? Are we any more enamoured of the reach of the European Court of Justice? The European Parliament with no power and its ineffective MEPs? Are we more assured of the EU’s direction of travel? Its institutions and its high representatives? Is our faith restored? Or commitment reinforced? Our enthusiasm recharged?
Did our hearts melt at the sight of Christine (“bad – very, very bad”) Lagarde, the Florence Nightingale of the IMF – friend of the Greek people, ever ready with the instant jab of the austerity hypodermic for folk who don’t agree with her?
And do we warm a little more to those cuddles and come-ons from Jean-Claude Juncker? If we had doubts, any doubts at all, are we really assured when we see eurosceptic parties across the continent on the rise and Rome electing a Euro sceptic mayor? For an institution trading on claims to be progressive, liberal and democratic, this growing scepticism is more than “Little England” nostalgia.
So: a “victory” in the early hours of Friday morning, an end of the matter and a clear set of “winners”? This battle may be over, but the war over Europe is a bigger thing altogether.