Monday, September 19, 2016

The £350 Million and Leave campaigners' pyrrhic victory

In the Sunday Times yesterday Ameet Gill and Paul Stephenson made a point on how the Leave campaign deployed their £350 million claim during the EU referendum campaign which is quite similar to my previous post here arguing that Vote Leave had produced and successfully used a new version of the dead cat strategy.

The "Dead Cat" strategy, much associated with the Australian campaigner Sir Lynton Crosby, is a means of changing the debate agenda during a campaign. If the media are focussing on an issue which is deemed to be helpful to the other side you distract them by getting someone on your side to say something extremely controversial, if not downright outrageous.

As Boris Johnson wrote in 2013,

"Let us suppose you are losing an argument."

"The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case.

"Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as 'throwing a dead cat on the table, mate'."

Going on to describe the tactic, he wrote

"The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout 'Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!'; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief."

Vote Leave came up with a new version of this tactic for the EU referendum, which we might call "The false £350 million gambit."

How it works is this -

1) you start by taking a true argument for your side which you want to get more attention - the tactic only works if the underlying argument is pushing an important truth on an aspect of the situation favourable to your side - and then

2) you present it in a deliberately extreme form which is not true, and which is so provocative to your opponents they will be certain to challenge it

3) you use ruthless message discipline to promote the false form of your argument where everyone will see it.

What will follow is that

a) your outraged - or unwisely delighted - opponents will be unable to resist firing both barrels at what they will see as a lie or a gaffe,

b) the media, who love a good row, will turn their attention onto this subject, thereby turning the media spotlight away from whatever you wanted to distract them from, and

c) in seeking to be impartial, the media in general and the BBC in particular will report both sides of the row, and if they make any attempt to analyse the situation they will probably point out that the exact form of words you used is wrong, but -

they will also point out the accuracy of the true form of the argument which you wanted all along to get  out there.

In the case of the EU referendum, the true and false forms of the argument were:

TRUE - Britain is a large net contributor to the EU budget, paying about £161 million a week

FALSE - “The EU now costs the UK over £350 million every week – nearly £20 billion a year"

(and even more false was the suggestion that Brexit would enable this sum of money to be spent on the NHS.)

I learned yesterday from Ameet Gill and Paul Stephenson that there were cheers in the Leave campaign's HQ every time the Remain side attacked the overstated £350 million figure because it was moving the argument onto their territory.

Note that although the extreme form of the argument has to be provocative to your opponents, you don't want it to be so ridiculous that it annoys floating voters.

For example, although David Cameron never said that voting Leave could trigger World War Three, when many newspapers reported his speeches making far more reasonable arguments that the EU had contributed to peace in Europe as if he had, many people who did not realise that the press was grossly overstating what the then PM had said reacted strongly against the views attributed to him, which did significant damage to his credibility.

And when EU council president Donald Tusk actually did say that Brexit might start a process which could lead to the end of civilisation as we know it, astute Remain supporters held their heads in their hands in despair.

This, however, did not apply to the $350 million a week figure, for the simple reason that both the £161 million a week which Britain actually pays to the EU and the £350 million which Vote Leave wrongly claimed that Britain pays simply sound to most voters like a lot of money.

Some opinion polls suggest that a significant minority of the more fanatical leave supporters actually swallowed the £350 million falsehood, but I don't think there is any reasonable doubt that the leaders of the Leave campaign knew perfectly well that the figure they were using was completely misleading and took a deliberate decision to provoke a row by using it.

Before 23rd June I thought that the decision of the Leave campaign to use the false form of this argument rather than the true one was a strategic mistake. They surrendered the moral high ground and damaged the reputation for integrity of all the people they used to push the £350 million figure.

However, given the result, it would appear at least possible that it worked because, as they had planned, it diverted attention to the cost of the EU.

Because there actually is a large net payment from Britain to the EU, it seems that the advantage Leave got by reinforcing the message that Britain does pay scores of millions of pounds a week to the EU may have been significant to a majority of voters - 52% of them, anyway - enough to outweigh the disadvantage they got because a majority of people knew the Leave campaign were not telling the truth about how many millions.

This was, of course, in the specific context of a referendum, not the election of a government. Hence most people were voting on which policy they thought was right, not which campaign team had more integrity.

Although the referendum was won for Leave, there was a price, and both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove have found it to be a pyrrhic victory.

We will never know whether Leave would have won without making that claim, but if they had it is entirely possible that Boris Johnson or Michael Gove would now be Prime Minister and that Gove would not be on the back benches.

Before declaring for Leave Boris's popularity ratings had a Teflon quality which defied gravity, but the most recent survey of the popularity of prominent politicians puts him in negative approval territory along with almost everyone else except Theresa May. Without the anger stirred up among that part of the Conservative party who voted remain - which includes more than half the parliamentary party - by the £350 million claim, Boris might well still have had enough support to stand for leader even after Michael Gove also decided to stand.

It is difficult to separate out the causes of Michael Gove's disastrous performance in the Conservative leadership election. It is very probable that his part in Leave campaign tactics in general and the £350 million claim in particular, his unfortunate comments about "experts" particularly the comparison of Nobel Prize winning economists with Nazis (for which he rightly apologised, but the damage was done, especially to himself) and the "Game of Thrones" style last minute stab-in-the-back against Boris probably all contributed.

What is beyond doubt is that the combined effect of these things trashed his standing with much of the Conservative party to about the level of popularity he enjoys among teachers.

The new PM might well have sacked Gove anyway as they are not exactly best friends and she was clearly determined to stamp her authority on the new cabinet, but the catastrophic decline in his reputation made his return to the back benches all the more likely.

Of course, if this tactic were used in an election campaign, it would have been far more risky. Most voters do pay some attention to whether the candidates for their vote have a reputation for integrity and for telling the truth.

It's not just Boris Johnson and Michael Gove who were damaged by the campaign. Most of the leaders of both the "Remain" and "Leave" campaigns took a big hit to their net approval ratings because of the (justified) impression that both sides fell short of the level of honesty that voters were entitled to expect.

Because this new version of the "dead cat strategy" appears to have worked once, it may be that some campaigners on right or left will try a new iteration of the "false £350 million gambit" in future elections.

I don't believe it deserves to succeed and I don't believe it will. But if it becomes obvious that a similar trick is being used in future to move the debate away from issues favourable to the opponents of the people deploying the trick, those opponents may be wise to consider that an instant rebuttal every time is not their best strategy.

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