Bang! Today, we wait to hear whether David Cameron has secured a deal in Brussels and therefore fires the starting gun on the referendum, or whether it is simply a false start along the way. What we do know however, and stretching the metaphor slightly, is that the Remain campaign are starting the long race towards referendum day with a head start over their opponents, but in a race this long they can’t take that for granted.
The renegotiation has been the anchor for much of the focus so far. However, come voting day it is unlikely to be playing a significant role in voters’ decision making process. At this stage it will be perceptions of Mr Cameron’s success or failure around the Brussels negotiating table that will decide whether he sprints or stumbles out of the blocks. This can have an impact on voting intentions – in the short term at least.
With our latest poll for ITV News showing that four in ten voters may still change their mind (more likely to be women and those aged under 55), this may prove decisive in setting the tone for the campaign. The devil won’t be in the detail when it comes to selling the deal to voters, more important will be how it is played out through the front pages of newspapers and newspaper bulletins. Unlike at a general election, the electorate are starting from a low base of information and long-built up associations with either side of the campaign and can therefore prove to be more volatile. Indeed, the last few weeks showed the influence the media can still have.
Following a string of negative front pages and reports about David Cameron and Donald Tusk’s draft agreement “Leave” gained some ground in the polls. However, what will be most interesting is to watch what happens next: was this a blip in the road or the start of a longer-term shift?
The gap may continue to narrow, especially if David Cameron does not return from Brussels with a “victory”. But the Prime Minister will hope he can get close to emulating his own high point of the last parliament when he “vetoed” the EU budget in December 2011 which saw the most significant short term spike in his own poll ratings as well as those of his party.
Once the deal is completed, attention will turn to sharpening messages and tailoring rhetoric. As in every campaign these will be designed to, on the one hand, energise their core supporters to campaign out on the streets, airwaves and online, and on the other persuade the waverers and wobblers to their cause.
As the Prime Minister’s perceived success or failure will fade from the memory, then it is the issues that will decide people’s votes that need to be targeted. As the chart below demonstrates, for many this referendum will be about control, whether that is over immigration or sovereignty. While we have already seen the Britain Stronger In campaign focussing a great deal on the economy, security and stability.
When the starting gun is eventually fired, we can expect to see plenty of negative campaigning from both sides. In any election, be it electing members of parliament or a referendum, negative campaigning is deployed and then criticised. Speaking to voters you might be left with the impression that negative campaigning should be avoided. Everyone always says they don’t like it. However, the reason parties and campaigns continue to use it is because it is effective. During the General Election the Conservatives’ campaign was seen by voters to be ‘negative’ and ‘dirty’ but of course, it worked in weakening the image of Ed Miliband as a potential Prime Minister. Like it or not, negative messages tend to stick more sharply in the minds.
As the Prime Minister sets off on his third referendum seeking to keep the status quo (AV and Scotland being the others), there is much yet to be defined: who will the major players be on either side, what major issues does the campaign become about and what excitement levels are reached (Scotland’s 85% turnout or the 42% for the AV referendum). The answers to these questions will soon become clear, but one thing is for certain, defeat would be the defining chapter in the history books covering David Cameron’s time in Number 10.