EU Referendum

Britain’s ‘out’ campaign seeks to tap Trump’s rocket fuel


Britain’s ‘out’ campaign seeks to tap Trump’s rocket fuel

Protesters hold banners as they interput British Prime Minister David Cameron's address to delegates at the annual Confederation of British Industry (CBI) conference in central London, on November 9, 2015. Britain can survive outside the European Union, Cameron said as he denied he was planning to campaign for Britain to stay in the EU regardless of the outcome of reform talks. Cameron was interrupted by two protesters who stood up and chanted "Voice of Brussels!", reflecting a suspicion among eurosceptics that he has already made up his mind in favour of Britain staying in the EU. AFP PHOTO / LEON NEAL (Photo credit should read LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Like millions of frustrated voters, Rose Gibbins has thrilled to Donald Trump’s rise.

“He’s refreshing. He’s different,” Ms Gibbins said, days after the property mogul triumphed in New Hampshire’s Republican primary.

Yet Ms Gibbins is not a resident of New Hampshire or Iowa. She lives in Northamptonshire, a county in the midsection of industrial England, where she is a leading foot soldier in the movement to pull the UK out of the EU.

That campaign is heating up, with David Cameron, the UK prime minister, expected to announce an “in-out” referendum on the country’s EU membership next week. To prevail in that contest, Ms Gibbins is hoping to tap the same anti-establishment, anti-politics sentiment in her fellow citizens that has been Mr Trump’s electoral rocket fuel in the US — and also propelled upstart political groups from Madrid to Athens.

“I think what you have in America is what you have here,” Ms Gibbins, the retired spouse of a former diplomat, said. “You have a complete and total disenchantment with the elite.”

As judgment day nears on Britain’s four-decade membership of the EU, the Eurosceptics — long dominated by Conservative politicians obsessed with questions of sovereignty — have donned the clothing of the insurgent and cultural outsider.

“They are just capitalising on the anti-politics mood,” said one senior Tory. “It’s the discontent we are seeing in every western European country right now.”

In one example of subversion, a pair of ‘out’ campaigners in November snuck into a the normally staid annual conference of Britain’s biggest employers’ group, the CBI, as Mr Cameron was delivering his speech and heckled him, holding aloft a sign that read: “CBI=Voice of Brussels.”

But some sympathisers found the stunt distasteful. “In order to win a broad referendum, you need to put forward an optimistic message,” said one.

Yet the director of one of the main ‘out’ groups, Dominic Cummings, was unapologetic, describing his forces to The Economist as “the underdogs” in an us-against-them fight.

An insurgent campaign may be a matter of necessity as much as identity. The “outs” have recruited few big establishment names to their side, even if business is deeply divided. For all their vitriolic headlines, few of Britain’s notoriously Eurosceptic newspapers have yet called for the country to leave.

Polls have shown a recent lift for the ‘outs’, reflecting the widespread suspicion that a package of concessions for the UK that Mr Cameron has negotiated with fellow EU leaders — and which are set to be finalised at a summit meeting next week — are far less than touted.

But few doubt the ‘outs’ have the harder task: They must convince a majority of voters to abandon the status quo and take a chance on the unknown. Like their insurgent brethren across the Atlantic, they are also riddled with internal contradictions and prone to fighting one another at least as much as the opposition.

“They’re like a bag of ferrets,” said one Conservative official.

Broadly speaking, those ferrets include Tory free traders, who believe the UK could flourish as an Atlantic Singapore — doing business with anyone and everyone — if only unshackled from Brussels; a more populist strain of voters shocked by the scale of migration into Britain and, finally, a smattering of hard-left Labour party members, who have long viewed the EU as a corporatist project.

In spite of efforts to co-ordinate, Mr Cummings, a former Conservative aide, has proved divisive while many also fear that Nigel Farage, the bombastic leader of the UK Independence party, is only waiting until the stage lights are at full wattage to say something truly offensive.

From a shoe box-sized office in Corby, Margot Parker, a Ukip member of the European Parliament, dismisses talk of disarray as the chattering of the London elite. For nearly a year, she has been speaking to constituents a dozen at a time over coffee and in pubs about the ills of the EU, particularly its inability to control immigration.

“It’s a top concern when people can’t get a job because of so much unskilled labour,” she says. “They’re unhappy when they can’t get their child into school, or they have to wait five weeks to get a doctor’s appointment.”

For those seeking unnerved voters, Corby would seem to offer rich hunting grounds. Its massive Stewarts & Lloyds steelworks was among the hardest hit when Britain nationalised the industry in the 1970s. Although the city eventually recovered, with some help from the EU, it is again haemorrhaging steel jobs at a successor plant run by Tata.

Meanwhile, immigrants from eastern Europe have become so plentiful in recent years that Polish is often heard on the High Street.

Last month, a new cross-party group of “outs” held a launch rally in nearby Kettering that attracted more than 2,000 people. “It was extraordinary. The room was absolutely packed,” recalled Ms Parker, who traces her own anti-EU turn to a stint in Brussels as part of a small business trade organisation a decade ago. “I was stunned,” she says. “It seemed clear to me pretty quickly that the door was always open for large companies.”

A stroll around town suggests that some citizens are oblivious to the Brexit debate while for others leaving Europe is hardly an obsession. “If we’re not in Europe, where else would we go?” one woman asked.

But others have been more receptive to Ms Parker’s message. “The migration thing — I just don’t get it,” says Dave Hadden, a local butcher, whose high street shop is dwarfed by a Polish supermarket a few doors down. “It’s gone too far.”

Mr Hadden dismisses as “scaremongering” warnings that Brexit will damage UK trade with the continent. Like others in Corby, he is a long-time Labour voter who recently defected to Mr Farage.

Ms Gibbins is hoping that as dissatisfied voters learn more about the “in” camp it will push them towards choosing to leave. The recent disclosure, for example, that Goldman Sachs had donated money to the “ins” was not a cause for despair, she said, but one of celebration: “It was a huge coup for [us]!”

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