As I arrived at Hong Kong airport a few hours ago, there were three TV channels playing above our heads as we queued to go through immigration. On one, a Chinese presenter appeared to be explaining what was happening in world markets. On the second, pictures of a smiling Hillary Clinton to illustrate new polls suggesting she is well ahead of Bernie Sanders in South Carolina. And on the third, CNN, David Cameron above the headline ‘British MPs take sides on Europe.’ The EU referendum, to cite the language of comms, has had ‘global cut through.’
But just as most people outside the U.S view Donald Trump as a rather bad international joke, and ask ‘how on earth is this happening?’ so I think most people outside the UK are asking ‘why on earth is Britain thinking of coming out of the EU?’
In our personality obsessed political coverage, the hit on sterling yesterday was widely being put down to Boris Johnson’s open defiance of David Cameron, and the fear that the man the media keep telling us is ‘popular’ will be able to swing the vote against Britain’s membership of the EU.
The very fact of holding the referendum is creating the kind of uncertainty and instability about Britain’s future that cause concern among investors. So a hit was virtually inevitable once Cameron came back from Brussels, held his Cabinet meeting, and then announced the date. The Boris show, which is exactly what it is, doubtless added to the uncertainty, but it was already there.
This is a referendum we are having for the wrong reasons, and with a lot of the debate currently focused on the wrong things. The wrong reason in that it was announced by David Cameron partly because he lacked something to say at an important moment in the last Parliamentary calendar, and more so because he saw it as a tactic to halt the rise of UKIP and quell the noise of the Tory right. And the wrong things in that Cameron, tactical again, set up his negotiations for a new deal for the UK in Europe in grand, epoch-making terms when he knew that, no matter what he achieved, it would not be enough for UKIP and the veteran Eurosceptics in his party.
However we got to where we are though, here is exactly where we are, a few weeks away from a vote more important even than the one to choose a government or a Prime Minister.
Given its significance, hopefully it will move soon enough from a personality/process debate in which Boris Johnson’s ego and ambition are centre stage, and from Tory MPs dancing on pinheads about what David Cameron did or did not achieve in line 3 of paragraph 7 of the statement issued after yet another all-night EU summit. Once that happens, we are then into the real meat of the debate, and the only question that has ever really mattered – In or Out.
For all my criticisms of Cameron on the route to this point, I think that in his Downing Street statement on Saturday, his interview with Andrew Marr, and yesterday in the Commons, he has done well when getting the message focused on that big, fundamental question.
The ‘leap in the dark’ point is a phrase we can expect to hear again and again. Unlike many of the Cameron soundbites we hear again and again and again, it has the merit of truth, and nobody from the Out side has yet to explain how we will glide effortlessly from full EU membership one day to full membership of the Single Market the next, even though we are no longer in the EU.
I liked too his line on how Brexit would lead to ‘the illusion of sovereignty, but less power.’ Sitting here in Hong Kong, looking out at the venue of the ceremony at which the place was handed over to the Chinese, this is not a bad place to reflect on the fact that Britain is not the power it was. And a lot of the power we do have comes from the role we play in major international institutions. The EU is one of them. NATO is another. The Commonwealth is another. Our permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council is another.
Here is another leap in the dark point. If we leave the EU, we lose power anyway. Then we can expect a second referendum in Scotland, and this time I think the independence campaign will win. So UK out of EU, Scotland out of UK. I think at that point we can wave bye-bye to that Permanent Membership of the UNSC.
So power. Vote Out for less power. Two more Ps worth thinking about. Peace and Prosperity. The EU has helped deliver both for decades across a Continent historically defined by war and poverty. With a resurgent Russia and new depths of terroriusn being mined, we are going to need strength and solidarity to deal properly with both. We get that through the EU.
The prosperity, as business leaders are arguing today, will be put at risk if we are restricted, as we will be, in our access to the single market.
Power. Peace. Prosperity. All worth fighting for. All more important than whether Boris Johnson manages to swing a few more Tory constituencies his way in the battle to succeed David Cameron, and more important too than whether Cameron did or did not manage to get everything he wanted from his negotiations.