DEBUG: blog_post
Dominic Cummings in his own words
08 Sep, 2019

Campaign strategy

London4Europe Committee member and former senior civil servant Michael Romberg has read through Dominic Cummings’ blogs on the referendum and provided the annotated extracts below. An earlier blog looked at Cummings’ views of the purpose of Brexit; this blog looks his views on campaign strategy; practical campaigning is covered in another blog. A fourth blog looks at the implications for our campaigning


Dominic Cummings' blogs

It is worth looking at his blogs about the referendum. There are 33 of them, each quite lengthy.  If you only wish to read one, then #21 (January 2017) is the key (and very long) review of the referendum campaign


Lessons for us

Remaining was presented as riskier than leaving

Britain was never much committed to the European project, but there had been a sense in the 1970s that the EU represented a better future. Cummings found in focus groups from 2014 onwards that sentiment had swung more against the EU on the back of the financial/ Eurozone crises and tensions caused by third country migration. Moreover, UK immigration (including freedom of movement) was a major issue for which the EU was blamed.

The country was divided into three groups: Leavers, Remainers and those who would like to Leave but thought it too risky/ expensive. These last were his target group. Hence his strategy was to emphasise the risks of staying in (Turkey, EU army) and the financial benefits of leaving (£350m).

He considered the idea that a promise of a second referendum would block off the argument that a Leave vote was a step in the dark, but expressed no view in his blogs.

We can try to turn the risk argument on its head by showing how Brexit prevents us tackling domestic problems (but party-neutrally, so without specifying the solution and without choosing one party’s analysis of what the problems are). We will have to be careful to express the point in a way that means it is not just dismissed as a variant of Project Fear Mark II.

We could try also to make our case on the related basis that only Remain makes Brexit go away as an issue – but that may not land as people do not understand the complexity of Brexit or the reality that post-Brexit we would be dependent on and engaged in permanent negotiations with the EU.


Cummings thought a positive EU campaign by Stronger IN would have been counter-productive

Cummings says “Trying to persuade the public they are wrong is futile.” He commends Stronger IN for not having tried to run a positive campaign as there was not the time to turn attitudes around and “We knew from the research that the more coverage of the EU, its powers, its record, its plans and so on the better for us.". He also believes that a future referendum would not be “about the EU” but about MPs/ the elite.

Even so, we do have to run the positive argument about the EU:

  • we would not otherwise be true to our values. How else could we run an honest campaign? What ought a Brexit referendum be about if not the EU/UK relationship?
  • We have to address Leavers’ concerns with the EU: control, sovereignty, freedom, community, immigration. We either say “you are right, these are problems, but it’s not so bad/ a necessary evil”; or we say “it is good to do all this through and with the EU”; the latter may not land but the former is sure to fail since it concedes their argument.
  • attitudes have hardened since the referendum: we are Remainers and Leavers, identities matter more than money. There is evidence of an association between switchers and changed views of the economics of Brexit; but the direction of causality is unclear.
  • we have to try to turn round the democracy argument that will motivate some Leavers to “tell them again”; perhaps arguing that because the Leave campaign had no plan they created a condition where elite Leave leaders could define Brexit after the event irrespective of what people had voted for.

In all this we have to repeat the Vote Leave magic of relating the EU to issues that people do care about.


Cummings thought that “Go Global” would have been counter-productive as a Brexit slogan

Most ERG Conservative MPs who wanted Brexit had given little thought to how it might work or be brought about. Their preferred slogan was “Go Global” (ie free trade). In Cummings’ view that did not work with electors.

There ought to be an opportunity there for us to consider. With the Conservative Party now defining Brexit with a greater emphasis on Global Britain, it would be worth trying to establish whether that was still as unpopular with the electorate as Cummings found it to be in the run-up to the referendum.


There could be no single Brexit plan in 2016

He thought that since Brexiter groups had never been able to coalesce around a single model it would be an insuperable task to create a Brexit plan let alone one that would obtain general support.

Another reason why he did not try was that the electorate did not know about the present relationship or care about the future relationship; so there was no point.

That of course is our great opportunity. The final stage of the 2020 referendum would be on one Brexit plan. Our task is to ensure that Brexiters accept that it is the best available Brexit; and that it is properly defined. On the other hand, we still have the problem that most people do not know or care about international relationships. At least we can say that the time for dreams is over.


On which side was business?

Cummings said that the pro-EU CBI misrepresented the views of British business which, his own polling showed, did not accept the rationale for being in the single market and customs union. That view is something we need to take seriously.

We need to find out what individual businesses (as opposed to their lobby groups and self-appointed representatives) actually think and how well-founded their view is.

For example, are businesses able to tell whether regulations come from the EU or the UK? Are they able to understand which regulations might be changed in practice? Can they consider whether it is better to have one regulation for the EU28 or one slightly better regulation for the UK and a different regulation for the EU27? 

There is also a rôle for local campaign groups in building up their contacts to local businesses who will be willing to come out as local influencers for Remain.


Cummings' view of the key issue for the campaign

Key was winning over Leavers who thought it too risky/ costly

Cummings in June 2015 saw the biggest problem of the Leave campaign as "the idea that a NO vote is a vote to leave in one jump and is therefore a leap in the dark." 

In September 2015: "There is a crucial fifth of voters who would like to leave but are frightened of the effect on their jobs and living standards. If the ‘leave’ campaign successfully assures these swing voters that their living standards will not be significantly affected, then there seems to be a better than 50:50 chance that ‘leave’ will win the referendum."

In September 2015: "However, for a crucial group of voters, roughly 20-25%, their attitude is – ‘we don’t like the EU, we would like to leave the EU, but we are very worried about the effects on jobs and living standards’. These people are also deeply worried about immigration. However, many of them will not vote to leave unless their fears about living standards are neutralised. If they are neutralised, then they will vote to leave. This does not mean ‘they don’t care about immigration’. They do care. But they care more about their own jobs."

In June 2014, Cummings reported the conclusions of focus group research. " The OUT campaign has one essential task – to neutralise the fear that leaving may be bad for jobs and living standards. This requires a grassroots movement based on small businesses. If when voting comes on a referendum, people think ‘all the local businesses are voting IN and they say they’ll be firing people and going bust if there’s an OUT vote’, then the IN campaign will win. If people think ‘small businesses are clearly in favour of OUT’, then OUT will win easily. If people think ‘business seems divided’, then OUT should win."  

"The second strongest argument for leaving is that ‘we can save a fortune and spend that money on the NHS or whatever we want’. They think that the EU’s ‘costs outweigh its benefits’, ‘we stick to the rules while the others cheat them’ and on issue after issue they side with ‘let’s take back control’ over ‘we gain more by sharing power’." (June 2014)

In September 2015: "The referendum will rest on whether the third of the public that dislikes the EU and would like to leave are persuaded that they have little to fear in terms of their jobs and living standards and that a vote to STAY is at least as risky as a vote to LEAVE given the long-term dynamics of the EU grabbing more money and power every year and planning a new Treaty after the referendum."  "The choice is not between ‘a safe status quo’ and ‘a risky leap’. The choice is between whether you think it is riskier a) to keep giving away control and money to an organisation that cannot cope with the economic and technological forces changing the world, and cannot use the power it already has wisely yet wants even more power to prop up the euro, or b) to take back control and money and negotiate a new deal based on free trade and closer international cooperation with our European friends and other countries around the world."


Immigration was a natural Leave issue and did not need to be highlighted

"The official OUT campaign does not need to focus on immigration. The main thing it needs to say on immigration is ‘if you are happy with the status quo on immigration, then vote to stay IN’." "Immigration is now such a powerful dynamic in public opinion that a) no existing political force can stop people being so worried about it and, contra many hacks I speak to, it wouldn’t matter if the Tories and Mail shut up about it – people’s actual experience and conversation with friends, family, and colleagues is the most important thing driving opinion, not the media; b) it is therefore not necessary for the main campaign to focus on it in a referendum (others will anyway) and focusing on it would alienate other crucial parts of the electorate." (June 2014)

"The biggest change in the EU debate since the euro battle is that people now spontaneously connect the issue of immigration and the EU." (June 2014)

Cummings does not believe that the Centre Ground is full of moderates. "Swing voters who decide elections – both those who swing between Conservative/Labour and those who swing between IN/OUT – do not think like this. They support much tougher policies on violent crime than most Tory MPs AND much higher taxes on the rich than Blair, Brown, and Miliband."  "One of the key delusions that ‘the centre ground’ caused in SW1 concerned immigration. Most people convinced themselves that ‘swing voters’ must have a ‘moderate’ and ‘centre ground’ view between Farage and Corbyn. Wrong. About 80% of the country including almost all swing voters agreed with UKIP that immigration was out of control and something like an Australian points system was a good idea. This was true across party lines." "Our campaign was neither Left nor Right in the eyes of the crucial audience." (January 2017)


Cummings on a Brexit plan to be presented in the Campaign

He thought it would be impossible as well as unnecessary for the Leave campaign to produce a Brexit plan: "Creating an exit plan that makes sense and which all reasonable people could unite around seems an almost insuperable task. Eurosceptic groups have been divided for years about many of the basic policy and political questions." (June 2015)

He had no interest in setting out a plan because he did not think that voters would care: "Lots of people said to me ‘when are you going to set out the details of the UK-EU trade relationship if you win?’ What would have been the point of that?! Approximately nobody knows anything about the important details of how the EU works including the MPs who have spent years talking about it and the journalists who cover it – indeed, often those who talk about it most are the most ignorant (and most overconfident). This is still true six months after the vote – imagine how much more true it was in the six months before the vote." (January 2017)


Cummings (before the first referendum) on whether there should be a second referendum

In June 2015 he opened an argument on whether there should be a second referendum if Leave won. He argued it on both tactical grounds (wavering Leave voters would be reassured that a Leave vote was not a leap in the dark) and good government grounds (the Leave campaign would not - could not - produce a plan and people should make a decision on a plan). He reached no conclusion, though he thought that "it seems likely that the parties will be forced by public opinion to offer a second vote". But his arguments against were tactical (it would give the Remain campaign a second chance)

In July 2015 he reported that his earlier blog had generated correspondence, reporting without comment that "It seems likely to many people that a NO vote would have to be followed by a second referendum on a new deal because the scale of importance of the UK-EU agreement, dwarfing the issues in normal general elections, would require giving people a vote.".

A July 2015 opinion poll showed that more people supported a susbsequent referendum on the terms of departure than opposed it (41:29%; true also for UKIPPERS 45%:35%), but with many don't knows (30%).


Cummings on business and Brexit

Cummings consistently argues that the CBI misrepresents British business views as pro-EU when his polling, which he believed to be of higher statistical quality, showed that most British business rejected the rationale for the Single Market and Customs Union and wished the UK to regain the freedom to make our own trade deals. (September 2015)

He saw building a network of small businesses to make the case for Leave in their localities as a necessity. (June 2015)




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