Emma, darling, you made me bet on ‘leave’

    5 March 2016

    As soon as I heard about Emma Thompson’s anti-Brexit rant the other week, I went online and bet as much as I could on Britain leaving the EU.

    Her snooty remarks about our ‘cake-filled, misery-laden, grey old island’ seemed almost perfectly pitched to rouse the nation’s Up Yours Delors instincts. A conspiracy theorist might even suggest that Thompson was in the secret pay of Vote Leave. The next day’s papers were splattered with jingoist aggro. ‘Shut yer cakehole!’ shouted the Sun.

    William Hill was offering 2/1 on a vote to leave. Not overly generous, I thought, but what the hell? Click click click. And lo, I was at last gripped by the most important political question of the year.

    It wasn’t just Ms Thompson’s intervention that prompted the bet. Since the start of the year, the political winds have been turning against the EU. The ‘leave’ campaign enjoyed a ‘Donald Tusk bounce’ after the (Polish) President of the European Council put forward his and David Cameron’s agreed proposals for reforming Britain’s relationship with Europe, and every British voter worth his or her salt asked: ‘Is that it?’ Cameron was clearly playing the public for fools. The press turned on him furiously. Polls came out suggesting the ‘leave’ vote now had majority support. There were whispers of panic in No. 10. Boris Johnson, having previously been a quivering jelly on the subject, started hinting that he was
    leaning ‘out’. He duly joined the Vote Leave team a few days later.

    Meanwhile, Europe’s economic situation and the refugee crisis are worsening. And the mood of the world is now so anti-establishment — note the Donald Trump phenomenon, or the rise of Marine Le Pen in France — that punting against the Eurocrats seems a shrewd move. Indeed, if you think the liberal democratic order is falling apart,and want to max up your ‘leave’ bet on the bigger trend, you can have Trump at 7/2 to be America’s next president, against Hillary Clinton at 10/11, and Marine le Pen at 5/1 to take charge of the Fifth Republic in 2017.

    If you put a fair whack on those three as an accumulator, and you turn out to be bang-on, you could probably retire to a tax haven as far as you like from Emma’s ‘grey old island’. Although I think I’d rather put money on Donald Tusk being made 2018 Sports Personality of the Year.

    It should be stressed that ‘remain’ remains a safer bet. The polls showing a majority for ‘leave’ tend to have been conducted online, and internet surveys tend to attract the most enthusiastic voters. Most Britons, if they give a damn at all, still find the red-faced EU-phobes more offputting than the faceless bureaucrats in Brussels. The more serious polls show a consistent majority for ‘remain’. An Ipsos-MORI poll conducted between 13 and 16 February put the vote to stay at 55 per cent, with ‘leave’ on 36 per cent. Polls, as we all know from last year’s surprising general election, are not gospel. Between 10 and 20 per cent say they don’t know how they’ll vote, so there may be a lot of shy ‘leave’ voters.

    But the undecided are just as likely to settle for status quo, if not more so. The British — unlike the Americans and the French — are a (small c) conservative and somewhat inert people. Europe is rotten, but we can’t quite face the upheaval of getting out.

    Vote Leave’s attempt to turn this referendum into a vote on Cameron’s negotiation before pushing for another vote on EU membership — meaning we’d all have to vote twice — is a smart play. But, even with so much at stake, can the British be bothered with another year of Eurobabble? Never undervalue apathy or ignorance. One member of the Vote Leave team admitted to me that because we are out of the eurozone, a surprising number of Brits don’t think we’re really in the EU. A lot of people can’t see what the fuss is about.

    Against the power of lethargy, however, consider the ability of the political elite to shoot itself in the foot. The Britain Stronger in Europe spokesmen and the Cameroons, while sneering at the amateurism of the ‘out’ factions, are making a spectacular mess of their own campaigns. The ‘Remainians’ seem to believe that the EU arrest warrant and the importance of the role of Brussels in managing the refugee crisis are trump cards. But you can count on the fingers of one hand the number of Brits who think the EU keeps Britain and our borders safe.

    So remember Emma Thompson, and bet ‘leave’. The europhiles will try to bore you into acquiescence with endless contentious statistics about how much poorer you’ll be if Britain is not part of the EU. Sod them. Have a bit of fun. If we do exit and the economy nosedives, at least you’ll have some winnings.