Conservative Home recently published an instructive piece written by Isabel Oakeshott about the respective strengths of the two established “leave” campaigns vying for the award of lead designation from the Electoral Commission.
The article begins with the words:
At stake is a £7 million prize and a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be the men who changed history.
The fact that the money gets top billing says so much about the mindset within what Ms Oakeshott variously calls the “Westminister bubble” and “SW1”. This is the same myopia that led Vote Leave to launch with an introductory video that contains misleading figures about possible “cost savings” post-Brexit. The “remainers” are understandably making great play out of this schoolboy error—and who can blame them? It is not as if Vote Leave were not cautioned against taking this particular line. More than once.
In her article, Ms Oakeshott essentially characterises Vote Leave as slick London professionals and Leave.EU as Arthur Daley upstarts, finally arriving at the fatuous conclusion that Nigel Farage—yes, that Nigel Farage—should play the role of king-maker bridging the gap between the groups.
However, the Conservative Home piece is not without interesting information.
Vote Leave Limited CEO, Matthew Elliott, is “a familiar figure in SW1”, notes Ms Oakeshott: “His is a slick, professional operation supported by numerous Tory MPs and peers as well as three Labour MPs, and Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s only MP. It is also backed by an impressive list of business figures.”
Now, before venturing any further, let us just stop to take note of the fact that the operation Matthew Elliott heads is so “slick” and so “professional” that Vote Leave initially chose black as one of the theme colours (since changed) for what is even now a borderline unreadable website. The opening line on the page titled “The Campaign” reads: “Technological and economic forces are changing the world fast.” What pray tell is “the world fast” and why is it of such concern to Vote Leave? Bad jokes (yes, that’s what that was) aside, whoever did the copywriting for the Vote Leave website clearly did not take the work seriously.
The next few sentences in Ms Oakeshott’s article, however, are the real meat:
A brilliant networker and consummate professional, Elliott is part of the Westminster establishment and lives and breathes political campaigns. Some years ago, he came within a whisker of taking a job in Downing Street, so much so that he was given a guided tour of Number Ten and shown his future desk. At the eleventh hour, the appointment was purportedly vetoed by Nick Clegg (an excuse familiar to those who have read Call Me Dave) but David Cameron did later ask him to run the ‘No to AV’ campaign, and it was a triumph.
In other words, according to Ms Oakeshott, Mr Elliott was “asked” by none other than the Prime Minister, David Cameron, to run the ‘No to AV’ campaign. Think about it. The Conservative Prime Minister who is now doing everything in his power to keep Britain in a “reformed EU” once selected Matthew Elliott to “do a job” for the Tory Party and Mr Elliott “came within a whisker of taking a job in Downing Street”. All very cosy.
Moreover, as CEO of Business for Britain, Mr Elliott assiduously echoed the Tory Party line on “renegotiating” Britain’s EU membership in order that Britain may “remain” in a “reformed EU”. As recently as June 2015, in an interview with Ms Oakeshott no less, Mr Elliott was reported in the Evening Standard as saying, “If the Government gets a two-tier Europe, we’re very much in”, and, as far as I am aware, he has yet to publicly clarify whether, when or why his view changed. In light of Mr Cameron’s proposal for “a British model of membership” and Jean-Claude Junker’s statements about a “two-speed Europe”, it is important to clarify that Matthew Elliott and Vote Leave will campaign for a new relationship with our EU partners based upon intergovernmental co-operation not supranational subordination. Partners not servants. To the best of my knowledge, no legacy journalist has asked Mr Elliott the question.
Then there is the attempt to re-write the history of the ‘No to AV’ campaign, which was a campaign that Mr Elliott ran so badly that he had to be rescued by the PM. Indeed, Mr Elliott said of the ‘No to AV’ campaign, “we’ve had the full public support and 100% help from [Conservative Campaign Headquarters] CCHQ”. Does Mr Elliott anticipate similar assistance during the EU referendum campaign? Given that Mr Cameron will be on the other side of the debate for once, the prospect seems unlikely.
Perhaps unaffiliated Brexiteers might like to reflect on whether a man who is on the record as supporting the idea of a “two-tier Europe”, who had “100% help from CCHQ” during the ‘No to AV’ campaign and who is so closely affliated with the Tory Party that, but for the intervention of Nick Clegg, he may well have been given a job in Downing Street, is an appropriate individual to be leading the “leave” campaign in an EU referendum.
Throw in “the brilliant former special adviser to Michael Gove”, Dominic Cummings, and apparently “it is easy to see why the commentariat (myself included) has rather taken it for granted that Elliott will run the Brexit campaign”. That would be the “brilliant” Mr Cummings whose idea of campaigning is to smuggle a pair of 19-year-olds into a CBI meeting in order that they may wave a sign and reluctantly chant—even the lads who were put up to the stunt seemed to have the good sense to realise that it was pretty embarrassing.
As co-owners of Vote Leave Limited, Mr Elliott and Mr Cummings are also responsible for the biggest problem with the Vote Leave campaign: the absence of a credible Brexit plan. Without a clear destination and the assurance that its goals are both realistic and safe, referendum voters will not be inclined to place their trust in the “leave” proposition. Fortunately for Brexiteers, there is a credible Brexit plan and we do not need to rely upon the likes of Mr Elliott and Mr Cummings to make our voices heard.