On Friday 10 June, five men charged with keeping Britain in the #European Union gathered in a tiny, windowless office and stared into the abyss.
Just moments before, they had received an email from Andrew Cooper, a former Downing Street strategist and pollster for the official remain campaign, containing the daily “tracker” – the barometer of support among target segments of the electorate. It had dropped into the defeat zone. The cause was not mysterious. “Immigration was snuffing out our opportunity to talk about the economy,” Will Straw, the executive director of Britain Stronger In Europe, recalled.
Earlier that week, the top Tories fronting the leave campaign – Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – had dominated the news with promises to control the nation’s borders. The remain side’s message, that Brexit entailed deadly economic risk, was being drowned out, particularly in areas that traditionally supported Labour. Polls showed that many voters were unaware that a remain vote was the party’s official position, a confusion exacerbated by Jeremy Corbyn’s manifest ambivalence about the entire European project.
The vote was less than two weeks away, and the team of former political enemies needed to jump-start the stalled campaign machine. Straw was a former Labour parliamentary candidate. Stronger In’s head of strategy, Ryan Coetzee, had run the Liberal Democrat 2015 election campaign. They were joined by three Conservatives: Ameet Gill, director of strategy at No 10 Downing Street, Stephen Gilbert, a former deputy chairman of the Conservative party, and Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s communications chief.
The immediate priority was to cut through the media’s obsessive focus on internal Conservative squabbles – “endless blue-on-blue” as Straw put it – which was turning supporters of other parties off the referendum and threatening to suppress the remain vote. The team discussed the possibility of launching a whole new campaign. It would be called “Progressives for In”, complete with its own branding and battle bus – a way to jolt the media into reporting the views of Lib Dems, Greens, and Scottish Nationalists, as well as Labour figures. But the logistics were too difficult. Instead a plan was hatched to tone down Tory voices and amplify the opposition. Staff from Stronger In branded it a “Labour fightback”.
Straw mobilised his Labour contacts. The campaign had scheduled a speech by David Cameron in Leicester for the following Monday – and now it made a last-minute switch. Gordon Brown, who had long wanted to be more involved in the campaign, stepped in to replace the man who had, six years earlier, succeeded him as prime minister. Ed Miliband, the man Cameron had beaten in the general election of 2015, helped to persuade Corbyn to lend his voice to a trade union event already planned for the following week.