Richard North, 29/05/2016  
 

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Last week, as the fog of "Project Fear" rolled out thicker than ever and polls showed the "remains" leaping into a dramatic lead, even newspapers most critical of David Cameron's propaganda blitz were at last zeroing in on why the "leave" campaign is so dismally losing the argument.

So writes Booker in the week's column, noting that "some of us have long tried to point out that the one thing vital to winning this battle was a properly worked-out 'exit plan'".

It cannot be said enough how important this plan is to an effective campaign. It is not (or should not be) an optional extra. Above all, says Booker, it was essential to reassure voters that it would be perfectly possible for us to leave the EU while still being free to trade as part of its single market.

And here's the rub. Vote Leave's deliberate refusal to offer such a plan (as confirmed by the Commons Treasury Committee) has left a black hole at the heart of its campaign.

The lack of a plan, which should have been published before the campaign proper started, has distorted the entire debate. Alone, it could have transformed the argument by pre-empting every scare story on which "Project Fear" relies. Most of the lurid claims of economic devastation simply would not have got off the ground.

As pointed out by Alistair Heath, the "best possible way" for us to leave is for Britain to join Norway in the European Economic Area (EEA).

Rich Norway is as fully part of that market as Britain. But of the 19,532 laws shown on the EU website as currently in force, it has only to obey 5,046 of them, 26 percent. And, as an independent nation, Norway has in fact more influence on shaping those rules than we do, as just one of 28.

The unique advantage of the "Norway option" is that it could provide an off-the-shelf means to neutralise all "Project Fear's" catalogue of horrors. No more "leap in the dark": shut out of the market, millions of jobs lost, house prices collapsing. Problem solved.

This is the point that Vote Leave have singularly failed to grasp. We are not in the soothsayer business and it is not possible accurately and completely to chart a way through the Brexit process. But the fact of committing a plausible scenario to paper, and endorsing it as a credible option, would be enough to reassure most people that the risks of leaving were acceptable.

The main purpose, then, is to neutralise the FUD, leaving Mr Cameron and his "remain" campaign with nothing to say. They have not otherwise been able to give us a single positive reason why remaining in the EU is so wonderful.

But, instead of biting the bullet, Vote Leave have determinedly left this black hole in the official Brexit campaign. It is this that has given "Project Fear" the room to exploit the political vacuum so shamelessly.

But what makes this still more shocking is that Vote Leave were told by their focus groups in the summer of 2014 – two years ago - that the “risk” of leaving would be the decisive factor in the campaign.

Yet the very man who organised this research also ignored it. Dominic Cummings, the one man at the centre of the Vote Leave campaign who could have made the difference, arbitrarily decided against adopting one, and no one else in the Vote Leave campaign had the gumption or foresight to over-ride him.

In June last year, Cummings's perverse rationale was that "creating an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around" seemed "an almost insuperable task". But when he observed that eurosceptic groups had been "divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions", that was the real issue to hand. The warring sub-tribes of Westminster, each with their favoured gurus, where not about to submerge their egos for the good of the cause.

Cummings did note that Flexcit had been produced. This, he acknowledged, was based on using the EEA as a transition phase – remaining in the Single Market and retaining a (modified) version of free movement – while a better deal, inevitably taking years, was negotiated.

Furthermore, he acknowledged that this was an attempt to take the Single Market out of the referendum debate. And with that, he promised to "discuss the merits of this idea", when he had "studied it more".

That discussion never happened. There was no discussion at all, not in the open. Snippets of objections emerged, with sniping round the edges, and the egos of Westminster loftily declared the plan a "non-starter". But there was no debate – no honest attempt to resolve the issues. All we got was back-stabbing and snide put-downs. Then, without anything being said openly, the whole idea was quietly shelved.

Much of the reluctance to proceed was based on a misunderstanding of the process. Cummings gave some clue to this when he argued that the "complexity of leaving" would involve "endless questions" that could not be answered, even if the plan were http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/may/28/economists-reject-brexit-boost-cameronto be 20,000 pages long".

This specifically reflected the failure of Cummings and his backers in Vote Leave to understand that Flexcit involved the adoption of the EEA and repatriation of the entire acquis, pending a longer term review. Not having properly studied the plan, or discussed it with me, he had not realised the extent to which it simplified the whole process.

The aim was for the day after leaving to be exactly the same as the day before. Only after a gradual, evolutionary process would changes emerge, and then these would be carefully managed, to minimise disruption.

But the great Cummings had already decided. "On top of the extremely complex policy issues", he wrote, "is a feedback loop". Constructing such a plan, he gravely informed us – having given the idea only minimal thought - "depends partly on inherently uncertain assumptions about what is politically sellable in a referendum, making it even harder to rally support behind a plan".

This was the bullshit factor creeping in. Cummings and his backers were already deciding what they wanted to "sell". Without declaring it openly, they had fixed on the idea of pushing savings from no longer paying contributions to Brussels. From this, the "£350 million a week" meme emerged – the same one that is now giving us so much trouble.

At the heart of this was (and is) a core of condescension and contempt for the voting public. From the "market research" he had done, it was clear that 15 years after the euro debate the general public knew nothing more about the EU institutions than they did then.

Less than one percent, he claimed, had heard of the EEA and few MPs, he averred, knew the difference between the EEA and EFTA or the intricacies of the WTO rules. That much, about the parlous state of knowledge of MPs, was doubtless true, but as we have learned, their ignorance is in a class of its own.

But what was very clear was that Cummings was not prepared to entertain the idea that the public could be effectively educated about such things in the time available. This was to be a "dumbed down" campaign, focusing on giving £350 million a week to the NHS.

Thus, when Mr Cameron went to Iceland last October to claim that the Norway option wouldn't work for Britain, Cummings rushed to agree with him.

Having rejected the principle of an exit plan, Vote Leave were being forced to discuss the possibility. But they now rejected the best one because joining the EEA would mean accepting the EU's freedom of movement rules (which could at least be tightened up later) - and it might cost us £4 billion of those billions we pay to Brussels each year. In any case, by then, the obsession with giving this money to the NHS had come to dominate what passed for Vote Leave's thinking.

The trouble is that, by so explicitly rejecting the "Norway option", Cummings was opening the way for the worst exit scenarios possible to be placed in front of the public – on the basis that if you don't come up with an exit plan, the opposition will pick the worst one for you.

How telling it was, therefore, that the Treasury's latest dollop of "Project Fear" on Monday, quite rightly explained why neither a "Canada-style" trade deal nor the WTO option would work (let alone some illusory one-off UK-EU trade deal which would take far too long to negotiate).

God knows how many times we've written on the flaws of these options, but nothing has any effect on Vote Leave. It is there that you see the obduracy of the SW1 claque that has been so apparent in its dealings with the Treasury Select Committee. Simply, they know best, and will not be told. There is no debate – not the slightest discussion. The word is handed down from on high, and that (as far as they are concerned) is the end of it.

Nevertheless, given such a perfect canvas on which to play, it is entirely understandable that George Osborne's civil servants didn't even need to consider the one option they most feared, joining Norway in the EEA. Vote Leave had already turned it down. At least the Institute for Fiscal Studies conceded that it would be much less costly than any other option suggested, but that soared above the heads of Vote Leave, as they sought to rubbish the Institute.

So, given a free pass by Vote Leave, "Project Fear" rolls triumphantly on, with the official leave campaign having given the game away before it started.

All that is left to the rest of us is to vote on 23 June for what might have been, in the knowledge that Mr Cameron has been allowed to get away with fighting this campaign so dishonestly that the core problem will in no sense have been resolved.

We shall, concludes Booker, remain just as resentful of being ruled by our weirdly dysfunctional EU system of government as we were before Cameron sought to bamboozle us by setting this cynical little charade on its way.






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