LONDON – David Cameron is said to have won the EU referendum with different tactics and another Labor leader in support, one of Vote Leave’s top officials told POLITICO.
Speaking to a special edition of the Westminster Insider podcast, marking the fifth anniversary of the Brexit referendum, Vote Leave communications director Paul Stephenson blamed Cameron’s mistaken approach and Jeremy Corbyn’s natural Euroscepticism for the failure of the Remain campaign to achieve victory.
He said Cameron’s biggest mistake had been trying to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s EU membership before the referendum – thus risking failure.
“It was crucial,” Stephenson said of the Prime Minister’s February 2016 deal with Brussels. “They said they were going to do something big on immigration… As a strategy, you don’t ask the big question that needs to be answered and then dismiss it with your own proposals.”
“If they had just said ‘the EU is not perfect, but for these reasons it is the right thing to do’, I think they could have won. They tried to turn the handbrake in the middle of the campaign, from ‘the EU is terrible, we have to reform it’ to ‘oh, that’s a brilliant thing’… I think that was a real problem. “
Stephenson – a central figure at Vote Leave HQ alongside Dominic Cummings, who became Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s main aide – said Corbyn’s election as Labor leader was also a giveaway for his campaign .
“I think if one of the other candidates for the Labor leadership had been leader of the Labor Party we would have lost,” Stephenson said. “There was no real Labor campaign until it was almost too late… It was after the local elections in May  when they really got out working as a party. They had a huge amount of money they could spend, they had a huge amount of ground troops – and those people just weren’t there. “
“We went out very early with red leaflets… And [Corbyn’s] the silence allowed us to enter a space that should not have existed. It allowed us to go after the conservative “petit-c” vote of the working class which was understandably quite Eurosceptic. They’ve conceded a tremendous amount of ground there. And I think, let’s say, if Andy Burnham had been in charge, I don’t think we would have had that much room to move in.
Craig Oliver, Cameron’s own communications director and a key figure in the Remain campaign, agreed Corbyn has caused endless trouble for his side.
“The Labor Party was a fundamental problem,” Oliver told the podcast. “I think if Ed Miliband had been in charge, and you had shadow ministers like Yvette Cooper and Ed Balls… they would’ve done a lot more weight.”
“In fact, we ‘burned out’ a lot of communications activity, we often left spaces for the Labor Party, and they didn’t accept it. The day before, Jeremy Corbyn or John McDonnell retired. You would have a situation where Jeremy Corbyn literally went on vacation during the campaign, or gave him “seven out of 10” in terms of enthusiasm for it. “
Oliver was happy to accept his own team’s shortcomings, however, and offered a withered assessment of Remain’s complacency ahead of the campaign.
“The reality is that I think the metropolitan liberal elite – of which I probably consider myself a part – assumed that people would listen to the establishment,” Oliver said. “That they might not like it, but that they would probably do ‘what was probably right for them’ in the end. I think it was probably an assumption that was below the surface, if people are being honest about it.
But he was equally scathing about Vote Leave’s relentless focus on immigration in the final weeks of the campaign, including repeated claims that Turkey could have joined the EU – with immediate rights to freedom of movement – by 2020.
“The Leave campaign very deliberately and systematically catalyzed the division: deliberately tried to play on people’s psychological fears,” Oliver said.
“The [immigration] problem has been exaggerated, magnified and magnified to the most extraordinary degree. Time and time again they misled people by telling them that Turkey was going to join the EU imminently. And as a result of that, 80 million people – parentheses, Muslims – could actually come to the UK. It’s a deeply uncomfortable thing for them to have said, and it was a problem for us.
Stephenson, however, insisted that the prospect of Turkey’s EU membership – publicly supported by Cameron in 2011 – was a “perfectly valid thing for us to talk about”, and stressed that during the majority of the campaign, Vote Leave had focused on its commitment to redirect Britain’s contributions to the EU to the National Health Service.
“The NHS was one of the things we absolutely hammered home all along,” he said.
He also championed the infamous Vote Leave tour bus, which featured a pledge to spend the UK’s gross £ 350million per week contribution to the EU for the NHS. Throughout the campaign, Remain supporters have vehemently complained that £ 350million was just the gross figure and that much of that money was already spent on services in the UK.
“There was a range of numbers that could have been used, and £ 350million was on the high end,” Stephenson said.
“All they did was create arguments about how much money we were sending… I think it became very clear early on to us that in fact they were making a huge mistake in raising this issue. We wanted to talk as much as possible about the cost of the EU – and the lack of control over money and how it is spent. It was one of our strongest messages.