- Personalities matter because many voters ignore policy detail
- `Out' campaign's complaints may hand advantage to opponents
With just over 100 days to go until Britain’s referendum on leaving the European Union, Queen Elizabeth II and Bank of England Governor Mark Carney have both been dragged into the debate, showing that personalities will play a crucial role in the outcome.
Supporters of a so-called Brexit called for Carney to resign after he identified a vote to leave as the largest single domestic threat to the economy on Tuesday, but they were cheered by a story in The Sun newspaper that Her Majesty was supporting their side. The report, based on a five-year-old conversation in which she is claimed to have expressed doubts about the direction of the EU, is now the subject of a formal complaint from Buckingham Palace.
With voters being asked to make a decision about a subject on whose details they are hazy, the figures stumping for each side carry more weight, according to Joe Twyman, head of political polling at YouGov Plc.
“They are looking for answers to big questions: Is Britain safer as part of the EU? Is Britain stronger as part of the EU? Will I and people like me be better off with Britain as part of the EU?” Twyman said in an interview. “Who people then trust to provide answers to these questions becomes important.”
In the latest endorsements, astrophysicist Stephen Hawking led a group of 150 scientists including three Nobel Prize winners, backing the campaign to remain in the EU. They said in a letter to the Times newspaper that it would be a “disaster” for U.K. research if withdrawal from the bloc made it harder for European scientists to work in Britain.
On Thursday, Cameron pulled Carney back into the debate, citing him in a tweet. “As Bank of England Governor Mark Carney said, leaving the EU is ‘the biggest domestic risk to financial stability,’” Cameron wrote. The prime minister’s spokeswoman, Helen Bower, denied that this was an attempt to politicize the independent central-bank governor. “He is reiterating comments that the governor has already chosen to make,” she told reporters.
The premium placed on endorsements helps to explain the vitriol that they draw. Both sides hope to make it a painful business to come out in support of their opponents. Dominic Cummings, campaign director of Vote Leave, spelled this out in November, after his group sent two students into the Confederation of British Industry’s conference to heckle Cameron and attack the group.
“You think it is nasty?” Cummings told the Telegraph afterward. “You ain’t seen nothing yet. These guys have failed the country, they are going to be under the magnifying glass. We are going to be tough about exposing the failure of the establishment.”
Still, the only person so far to lose their job over the referendum has actually been on the pro-Brexit side. John Longworth stepped down as director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce after announcing he supported leaving the EU. The organization’s current status is neutral. Cameron’s office has denied putting pressure on the BCC.
Longworth’s resignation revealed the bad blood between Cameron and many members of his Conservative Party, with some lawmakers demanding he release details of contacts between his office and the BCC. Such rifts were unlikely to be helped by a speech Thursday from Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling, who said the prime minister’s renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership failed.
“The degree to which the EU now governs our lives is not changed by this agreement,” he said. “The renegotiation has not returned powers to Parliament or the people elected and accountable to it.”
The Sun faced down its critics on Thursday morning, insisting its story about the Queen backing Brexit was correct. Editor Tony Gallagher refused to say if Justice Secretary Michael Gove, a close friend of Cameron’s who is campaigning to leave the EU, was behind the story.
“We are in no doubt that the story is accurate,” Gallagher told BBC Radio 4. “Multiple sources -- two sources to be precise -- came to us with information about the Queen and her views on the EU and we would have been derelict in our duty if we didn’t put them in the paper.”
While attacks on individuals can make people reluctant to speak out, there’s also a danger in focusing too much on complaining about the way the other side is campaigning. In recent days those supporting “Leave” have repeatedly criticized Cameron for running a “Project Fear” campaign.
“I can see why the Brexiteers are doing it: it dovetails with a notion of national character that holds there’s nothing we Brits hate more than being bullied,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London. “But it’s still a mistake. Banging on about ‘Project Fear’ only serves to remind people of the risks.”