Why has the Mail on Sunday gone soft on Brexit?

“[I]t is clearer than ever that the Leave campaigners are losing the economic argument … Their preoccupation with immigration … can sometimes seem more like an obsession, and one that is not entirely free of a prejudice that most British people have long ago rejected.”

These are excerpts from today’s editorial lead in the Mail on Sunday. No, not The Observer, but the Mail on Sunday, a newspaper that has long thundered about the cost of Brussels bureaucracy, real and imagined, and which is more than a little preoccupied with immigration.

No newspaper can afford to get too far out of kilter with its readers’ opinions too often, so this is remarkable, at least at first blush. Mail readers support Brexit by a margin of three-to-one. So what causes a newspaper that has campaigned against British membership for decades to perform a volte face, expressed in particularly damning terms, on the eve of the first Euro referendum since Slade were big?

British newspapers like to retain influence on the government of the day. While David Cameron will need to mend fences with Brexiteer opinion in his own party in the event of a Remain vote (witness his joint launch of a prison reform policy with Michael Gove last week), he needs to have few scruples with those outside. By dissembling now, the Mail on Sunday gets to remain besties with Number 10 if the referendum is for remaining in the EU. An editorial as blunt and surprising as this probably means the top management at the Mail on Sunday have decided that the vote will go to Remain, possibly by a substantial margin.

Something has clearly shifted in élite perceptions of the Referendum campaign, very recently. They seem to be assuming this is a done deal. I don’t know why. Here’s one possibility: both Remain and Leave campaigns have large telephone canvassing operations and will note any shift of undecideds quickly. Focus groups may have picked up a change in the perception of the issues that dooms the Leave campaign to failure, regardless of headline polling figures. In particular, if undecided voters have decided the Remain side has decisively won the economic and security arguments, then it is pretty much game over for the Leave campaigns. That sort of information leaks into the Westminster-Fleet Street gossip bubble quickly.

There also seems to be some shift in the polls, with some now recording large double digit leads for Remain, but the data is a little contradictory, and the huge gap between telephone and internet polling remains. Perception in the gossip bubble doesn’t always tally with reality, and the higher leave figures in internet polls could be a classic ‘spiral of silence’ situation: people feel they ought to be in favour of the EU even if they aren’t, and find it easier to express that by anonymously clicking a button than they do to tell it to a nice person on the telephone.

Yet, there are reasons for thinking a shift of opinion has definitely occurred and both sides are seeing it. It would explain why the Leave campaigns have hit the panic button in the past fortnight or so. Most significantly, the Leave campaigns have retreated into too narrow a focus on immigration, especially so far from polling day. It’s an implicit admission that other issues aren’t playing for them.

That panic seems to be getting under the skin of leading campaigners on the Leave side, and they’re making mistakes. Nigel Farage’s threat of violence was the worst episode, but Boris has invoked Godwin’s Law and Ian Duncan Smith had a strange meltdown of a Sunday morning TV interview under minimal pressure.

The problem with Leave talking too much about immigration is that alienates a key part of any winning coalition they might construct – the business-friendly libertarians, who dislike anything that smacks of bureaucracy but who are neutral to actively positive on multi-culturalism. Many of these people believe that not only is a looser post-EU structure possible, but that it would be popular with our friends in other parts of Europe – and they do think European nations basically are, and should be, friendly. The weird Putin-worship that exists on the fringe of Leave.EU will really alienate this group of voters as and when they encounter it. The patchy but real evidence from polls is that undecideds among mainstream Tory voters, in particular, are breaking for Remain – immigrant-bashing and Kraut-bashing might be reasons why they are.

There was always a danger that the Leave campaigns’ army of passionate supporters would see them playing to the gallery rather than reaching out to the undecided middle, which is where close elections are decided.

A month of campaigning remains, most notably the series of head-to-head TV debates. There is also the scope for external events to radically change the course of the campaign: Austria may have voted for a far right President today, which would cause conniptions in EU capitals; President Erdoğan’s slide towards outright dictatorship may yet set the powderkeg that is the Near East ablaze; a major incident of Islamist terrorism in the UK or elsewhere in Europe sadly cannot be ruled out.

I don’t think an election as unique as this one can be predicted until the exit polls are released.

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