Brexit: Menacing the voters 'could backfire'

By Mark Gilbert comment

Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delivers a speech on the EU. Photo / AP
Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, delivers a speech on the EU. Photo / AP

When Scots nearly voted to leave the United Kingdom in a September 2014 referendum, they sent a powerful message to those in favour of maintaining existing political and economic blocs in Europe: 'You can't scare voters into line'.

Sadly, the campaign to keep Britain in the European Union still favours intimidation over persuasion, a tactic that may backfire badly when the polls open on June 23.

Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne today threatened that a vote to leave the EU would leave a "black hole" in British finances worth US$42 billion - which he'd fill with "an emergency budget where we would have to increase taxes and cut spending". Unsurprisingly, the news has caused a storm of protest.

Some 57 Conservative MPs have pledged to vote against any post-Brexit emergency budget, illustrating how divisive the European question is for the ruling party. More than 40,000 tweets on the topic have flown around.

The "Remain" campaign is running scared after five opinion polls in the space of fewer than 24 hours all showed a lead for the campaign to leave the EU.

Osborne may be correct that a decision to quit the block will cause an economic shock that will have an impact on the Budget and force the Government to make adjustments. But the way to get that message across is with data advertising the benefits of membership, not by menacing the electorate.

The economic risks of Brexit have already been outlined by the IMF, OECD, the Treasury, the Bank of England, and other bodies who've studied the likely short- and medium-term economic impact, and it has been repeated to voters constantly throughout the campaign.

Voters are perfectly capable of drawing their own conclusions; Osborne's gambit suggests he doesn't think so.

Today's speech makes him look like schoolyard bully. It verges on undemocratic: "Vote the way we want you to or we'll take away more of your pay and we'll cut the public services you use".

It may well be the end of any hopes Osborne has of winning the Tory party leadership once Prime Minister David Cameron steps down. By contrast, his chief rivals for the post, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, increasingly sound like winners, focusing on the positive steps they'd take after winning the referendum to disentangle Britain's EU relationship.

For those of us who'd prefer to remain part of the world's largest single market, the widespread accusation that the pro-Europe campaign has become "Project Fear" is worrying - and sadly predictable.

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