How the Brexit referendum was spun and lost

LONDON — David Cameron would have won the EU referendum with different tactics and a different Labour leader in support, one of Vote Leave’s most senior figures told POLITICO.

Speaking to a special edition of the Westminster Insider podcast, marking the five-year anniversary of the Brexit referendum, Vote Leave’s director of communications Paul Stephenson blamed Cameron’s flawed approach and Jeremy Corbyn’s natural Euroskepticism for the Remain campaign’s failure to win the day.

He said Cameron’s biggest error had been trying to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership ahead of the referendum — effectively setting himself up to fail.

“It was pivotal,” Stephenson said of the prime minister’s February 2016 deal with Brussels. “They were saying they were going to do something big on immigration … As a strategy, you don’t set up the big question that needs to be answered and then flunk the question with your own proposals.”

“Had they just come out and said ‘the EU isn’t perfect, but for these reasons it’s the right thing to do,’ I think they could have won it. They tried to basically do a handbrake turn in the middle of the campaign, from ‘the EU is terrible, we have to reform it’ to ‘oh, it’s a brilliant thing’… I think that was a real problem.”

Stephenson — a central figure in Vote Leave HQ alongside Dominic Cummings, who went on to be Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s top aide — said the election of Corbyn as Labour leader had also proved a gift to his campaign.

“I think if any other of the Labour leadership contenders had been leader of the Labour Party, then we would have lost,” Stephenson said. “There wasn’t really a Labour campaign until it was almost too late … It was after the local elections in May [2016] when they really came out working as a party. They had a huge amount of money they could spend, they had a huge amount of ground troops — and those people just weren’t out there.”

“We were out early on with red leaflets … And [Corbyn’s] silence allowed us to move into a space that shouldn’t have existed. He allowed us to go after the working class ‘small-c’ conservative vote that was naturally quite Euroskeptic. They conceded a huge amount of ground there. And I think, say, if Andy Burnham had been in charge, I don’t think we would have had as much space to move into.”

Craig Oliver, Cameron’s own director of communications and a key figure in the Remain campaign, agreed that Corbyn caused endless problems for his side.

“The Labour Party was a fundamental problem,” Oliver told the podcast. “I think if Ed Miliband had been in charge, and you had shadow Cabinet ministers like Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls … they would have pulled their weight a lot more.”

“We actually ‘gridded’ a lot of activity for communications, we’d often leave spaces for the Labour Party, and they wouldn’t take them up. The night before you’d either have Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell pulling out. You’d have a situation where Jeremy Corbyn literally went on holiday during the campaign, or gave it ‘seven out of 10’ in terms of his enthusiasm for it.”

Oliver was happy to accept his own side’s shortcomings, however, and offered a withering appraisal of Remain’s complacency ahead of the campaign.

“The reality is, I think that the metropolitan liberal elite — of which I consider myself probably part — had assumed that people would listen to the establishment,” Oliver said. “That they might not like it, but they’d probably ‘do what was probably good for them’ in the end. I think that probably was an assumption that was below the surface, if people are honest about it.”

But he was equally scathing about Vote Leave’s relentless focus on immigration in the final weeks of the campaign, including repeated claims that Turkey could have joined the EU — with immediate freedom of movement rights — by 2020.

“The Leave campaign very deliberately and systematically catalyzed division: deliberately set out to play upon the psychological fears of people,” Oliver said.

“The [immigration] issue was blown out of proportion, magnified and amplified to the most extraordinary degree. Over and over again, they were misleading people that Turkey was going to join the EU imminently. And as a result of that, 80 million people — brackets, Muslims — could actually come to the U.K. That is a deeply uncomfortable thing for them to have been asserting, and was a problem for us.”

Stephenson, however, insisted the prospect of Turkish accession to the EU — publicly supported by Cameron in 2011 — was a “perfectly valid thing for us to talk about,” and stressed that for the majority of the campaign, Vote Leave’s focus had been on its pledge to re-channel Britain’s EU contributions toward the National Health Service.

“NHS was one of the things we absolutely hammered throughout,” he said.

He also defended the infamous Vote Leave tour bus, which was emblazoned with a pledge to spend the U.K.’s £350 million-a-week gross contribution to the EU on the NHS instead. Throughout the campaign, Remain supporters complained vociferously that £350 million was only the gross figure, and that much of that money was already spent on services in the U.K.

“There were a range of numbers that could have been used, and £350 million was at the upper end,” Stephenson said.

“All they did was create arguments about how much money we were sending … I think it became very clear quite early on to us that actually they were making a massive mistake by elevating this issue. We wanted to talk about the cost of the EU — and the lack of control of the money and how it’s spent — as much as possible. It was one of our strongest messages.”

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