BBC EU Debate: A Great Switch Around


Remember that bizarre few days at the start of the 2015 election campaign when Labour decided it was the party of fiscal responsibility and the Tories the party of NHS investment?  Tonight’s BBC EU debate felt like that.

In the section on the economy the Remain campaigners failed to demolish the Leave campaign as easily as expected. In the immigration section, Remain finally landed a blow on Leave.  Consequently, the debate became the great switch around.  Both campaigns landed blows on their opponents’ turf, but with less than two days until polls close will this be enough?

The Economic Debate

Boris Johnson, possibly the only Tory working class Labour voters have both heard of and like was effective in his attacks on EU migration suppressing wages.  This highlighted two failures of the Remain side up until tonight:

1) a clear failure to answer the immigration question in any meaningful way.

2) a failure to demonstrate how the EU, which to most voters is a distant political institution acts as a successful economic institution.

In many ways the relatively poor polling figures on voters’ beliefs in the economic downsides of leaving stem from this.  After years of images on our TV screens of the Eurozone in crisis, Remain really needed to explain clearly to voters exactly why leaving the EU is economic suicide.  In this EU debate,  Remain failed to do this. This allowed the highly effective, if annoyingly repetitive, use of “take control” by the Leave team to win through.

As a result, this was no easy win for Remain.  Brexiters are probably celebrating getting through this section unscathed, yet they must remember that it was just that:  coming through unscathed.  Remain only need to plant doubts in voters’ minds about leaving the EU, which they did.  We may be seeing an anti-establishment mood grip the west, but we continue to see risk-aversion.  If Leave lose on Thursday they would do well to dwell on the fact they have failed, as Ruth Davidson so brutally showed, to find a plan for post-Brexit which can quell certain voters’ fears.

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The Immigration Debate

For many voters, the BBC EU debate has focused on immigration to the overwhelming advantage of Leave.  The Remain side of the EU debate tonight finally found some sort of answer on immigration.  Leave’s advocacy of the Australian-style points was the cause.  Remain highlighted that Australia has higher immigration per capita than Britain (obviously, because they have chosen to do so) and then challenged Leave as to whether emulating it would therefore see higher levels of immigration.  Gisela Stuart could only manage to say that we could “take control” of immigration.  This was a mistake and led to jeering from the audience.

Although it probably would not change many ardent out supporters’ minds, it was perhaps enough to affect  swing voters.   Coupled with doubts on the economy and the effective attack on Vote Leave receiving a donation from a BNP supporter, Remain may have finally found an answer to immigration.  No swing voter worried about immigration and the economy would be put completely at ease by Leave. They also probably would not wish to associate themselves with a campaign the BNP could support, however unfair the charge may be.  Therefore, Remain secured a victory of sorts.  Voters solely focused on immigration would not be convinced, but Remain were not trying to convince them.  They effectively used this BBC EU debate instead to plant enough doubts about changes to immigration post-Brexit to get some undecideds to vote Remain.

BBC EU Debate in the wider context

Coming just two days before the referendum, tonight was a BBC EU debate for the undecided.  More importantly, being on the BBC it had the potential to reach a truly massive audience.  I often think these debates excite Westminster more than the public, but this had the potential to be significant.  It is well documented that we see status quo reversion amongst voters in the final few days of a campaign.  Remain’s job was to exploit that, which they largely did.   Davidson and Khan’s deployment also ensured tomorrow’s papers will see talk of ‘passion’ in their side for the first time.  Although I doubt most voters care about ‘passion’, a positive write-up never does any harm heading into polling day.

Leave, however, should not be written off.  They own the most effective catchphrase of this campaign – “take control” – and continue to own immigration overall.  Last week’s horrific murder of Jo Cox also paused the EU debate right when Leave was on the front foot, leaving Remain a reduced period in which to fight back when campaigning resumed.

Events like these do not decide campaigns, but often they clarify things.  Tonight’s BBC EU debate, for me at least, clarified why Remain are the favourites.  They effectively used risk aversion and finally found something to say on immigration.  Project Fear may not be pretty, but it may end up being effective.

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