George Osborne’s plan for this referendum was to turn it into a question of the future versus the past, for both the country and the Tory party. He wanted the voters to see the Out campaign as a bunch of people who wanted to take Britain back to a bygone era. Inside the Tory party, his aim was to have the talent and the ambition on the IN side with only old war horses and the passed over and bitter on the other side.
But the events of the past 36 hours have blown this plan off course. Out now has one of the most popular politicians in the country on board in Boris, as well as one of the intellectual driving forces behind Tory modernisation and the party’s new social justice agenda in Gove.
This referendum campaign will now be about two competing versions of the future for both the country and the Tory party.
Nationally, Vote Leave—who must now be firm favourites for the Electoral Commission designation—intend to run a forward-looking campaign. They will stress the need for Britain to trade more with the fast growing economies of the East and argue that the EU is an outdated idea in an increasingly global world. Expect to hear a lot more of Michael Gove’s argument that the EU ‘is an analogue union in a digital age’.
In Tory party terms, Boris Johnson backing Out means that there is a strong chance that the next leader of the party will be an Outer. This will, I suspect, help move some currently undecided Tory Ministers and MPs into the Out camp. It will certainly be harder to persuade Tory MPs that their careers will be over if they back Out, for with Boris and six Cabinet Ministers campaigning to leave there will—at the very least—need to be a reconciliation post referendum to avoid a permanent split in the party.
Now, as I said earlier, the odds still favour the IN campaign. It has both the Prime Minister and the electorate’s well defined sense of risk-aversion on its side. But what this contest will not be any more is a straightforward future/past choice—and that means Out has a chance.
SPECTATOR EVENT: EU REFERENDUM - THE BATTLE AHEAD
Fraser Nelson, James Forsyth and Isabel Hardman will be discussing the EU Referendum campaign campaign with pollster Ben Page from Ipsos Mori on Monday 21 March. Tickets, for subscribers only, are on sale now. To subscribe from £1 a week, click here.