Billboard and newspaper ads to target ‘soft leavers’ and MPs in bid to moderate or halt process
One year to go: pro-remain groups are hoping to take the Brexit fight beyond parliament .
Remain campaigners plan to use the next six months to try to stoke public concern over Brexit and pressure MPs to vote against the final deal that Theresa May extracts from her negotiations with the European Union.
Best for Britain this week began spending the £500,000 it raised from George Soros’s foundation, starting with a set of billboards asking “When will we know what we voted for?” and stating “We all deserve a say on the final deal”, talking up the idea of a second referendum.
MPs and peers flex muscles as countdown to meaningful vote begins
The pressure group is pursuing tactics akin to a political party, focusing its energies on targeting voters in the Midlands and north of England with billboards at the main railway stations and advertisements in the regional press as the battle to halt or soften Brexit starts to go beyond parliament.
It hopes to target a constituency of 7 million “soft leavers”, according to communications director Paul Butters, and will also use Facebook to reach such people.
Social media messages will highlight the number of doctors and nurses from the EU who work at local hospitals. “The argument will be this is not the Brexit you signed up to,” Butters said.
The approach differs subtly but importantly from Open Britain, which developed from the failed remain campaign, and has been consolidating with other grassroots organisations such as the European Movement or Scientists for the EU in shared offices based at Millbank Tower – a short walk along the Thames to Westminster.
Open Britain works as a more traditional pressure group. With a staff of eight, it is aiming to lobby MPs and campaign in the first instance for a softer Brexit, trying to keep the country within the customs union or even the single market, by mobilising supporters from a mailing list that it claims is 500,000-strong. It wants supporters to hold events around the country in a day of action on 14 April.
That approach isn’t enough for the more fundamentalist Best for Britain, which has far more money to spend. “They want to argue for a softer Brexit,” Butters argued. “We think that no Brexit should be on the table; they are not comfortable with that argument.”
But the differences between the groups are not vast, and their staffs – many of whom have links to Labour or the Liberal Democrats – are well known to each other.
James McGrory, the executive director of Open Britain and a former adviser to Nick Clegg when he was deputy prime minister, emphasises unity: “Just look at what we achieved with amendment 7 before Christmas, where all of the pro-European groups, including Open Britain, Best for Britain and the European Movement, worked hand-in-glove to lobby MPs to vote for it.”
There are doubts whether Best for Britain’s posters and local newspaper ads will be effective in leave-supporting parts of the country. Billboards are a particularly crude form of political targeting, with political parties spending less on them as social media has taken their place.
There are mixed messages from the polls, several of which nominally put the remain camp about three points ahead if the referendum were held again tomorrow.
Anti-Brexit organisations have been attending a Wednesday morning coordination meeting chaired by Labour MP Chuka Umunna. Despite reports to the contrary, few other MPs attend.
Another key figure is Open Britain chair Roland Rudd, who runs corporate communications firm Finsbury. Until recently, Rudd had Open Britain operating out of a tiny room in his own Thameside offices off the Strand. A wider group participates in an email chain. People such as journalist and former spin doctor Alastair Campbell pitch in; one of the most active participants is said by some recipients to be philosopher and author AC Grayling.
Best for Britain has an openly stated goal to stiffen the Labour party’s anti-Brexit stance so that opposition MPs vote against the final deal on offer. It intends to produce research showing that in 150 mainly Midlands and northern seats, sitting Labour MPs owe their majorities to remain supporters.
For Umunna, as part of Open Britain, the focus is on staying in the single market. “Whether the UK stays in the single market – through participation in the European Economic Area – is in Jeremy Corbyn’s hands,” he said.
However, Umunna’s challenge is that within Labour ranks he is seen by many as anti-Corbyn. Some figures linked to Open Britain – but not Umunna himself – have argued that their campaign should become the basis for a reinvented third party. Few are taking that talk seriously, not least because the pro-Europe Lib Dems are doing so poorly.
The problem for both organisations has been working with Conservatives. Pro-EU Tories cut their ties with Open Britain before the 2017 general election after it released an “attack list” of MPs to target. Earlier this week, however, Anna Soubry and former cabinet minister Chris Patten spoke at an Open Britain event – a signal, some hope, of the beginning of a rapprochement.
Open Britain and Best for Britain each claim that the energy is on their side, not least because there is nobody as enthusiastically making the case for Brexit, even though it is government policy.
During May’s tour of the country on Thursday, which included a muted endorsement of the UK’s post-Brexit prospects, she said it “would deliver a country that will be different” and that the UK would have the chance of a “bright future”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has emerged as the Brexiters’ standard bearer, with influence gleaned from his chairmanship of the European Research Group, the group of 50 or so Tory MPs with the principal aim of pushing party policy towards the right.
The pro-Brexit campaign groups are weaker: Leave Means Leave provided a backdrop for a Rees-Mogg speech earlier this week, but it has a skeleton operation, and puts out far fewer press releases than the hyperactive pro-remain groups.
Richard Tice, the international property developer and co-chair of Leave Means Leave, said the aim of the group in the coming months would be to push for “clean, swift Brexit” and to emphasise that “a Canada-style free trade deal on goods and agricultural products is there for the taking”