‘Vladimir Putin should be running Europe — he gets the job done.” So said Formula One (F1) supremo Bernie Ecclestone in a bizarre aside about the Russian President when announcing his backing for the ‘Leave’ campaign in the United Kingdom’s European Union (EU) referendum debate.
Billionaire Ecclestone, of course, has previously been criticised for making a similar ‘he gets the job done’ comment about Adolf Hitler, while the controversial 85-year-old has also been accused of bribery in a German courtroom and recently said women wouldn’t be taken seriously in F1.
His comments have, unsurprisingly, not been welcomed by the official Leave campaign. But who can they turn to when it comes to celebrity endorsements for their bid for a ‘Brexit’? Their hopes were briefly boosted by the Sun’s dubious ‘Queen Backs Brexit’ front page last month, but that was swiftly denied by Buckingham Palace. And now they look a little short of options when it comes to popular, respected individuals — as the likes of George Galloway, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith can’t really match the clout of United States President Barack Obama, who last week warned that Britain would be at the ‘back of the queue’ when it comes to trade deals should it leave the EU.
This is a major problem for the Leave campaigners as, while they have the fervent support of a significant proportion of the electorate, their hopes of attracting the legions of undecided voters who will most likely decide the outcome of the referendum will be dashed unless their message can be broadcast in a voice that doesn’t inspire instant scepticism.
Colourful London Mayor Boris Johnson has been their best hope, but even his image has lost some sheen — thanks to the perceived opportunism of his decision to rebel against Prime Minister David Cameron and join the ‘Leave’ campaign. And his comments about Obama in light of the United States President’s pro-EU stance — Johnson wrote of the ‘part-Kenyan President’s ancestral dislike of the British empire’ — have only added to concerns that ‘outers’ are at least partly motivated by xenophobia.
Meanwhile, influential individuals and organisations are queuing up to support the ‘Remain’ campaign. Obama was unequivocal in his backing, saying the UK should not cut itself off from major trade partners and warning that a ‘Brexit’ will send a signal of division to the world.
And his intervention certainly appeared to boost ‘Remain’’s hopes of emerging victorious on June 23, with Betfair giving them a 72 per cent chance of success, up nine per cent from before Obama’s visit. Five separate polls also showed a swing towards staying in the EU between mid-March and mid-April.
Obama is far from alone in warning British voters of the perils of a split from the European bloc. High-profile businessmen, unions and institutions continue to show their support, talking of how potentially costly it would be to swap the safety of EU membership for the uncertainty of life on the outside.
On Wednesday, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) added its voice to those of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Bank of England by saying that Britain’s economic growth would be lower outside the EU and that workers would effectively lose one month’s income every four years.
“We have done the comparisons, we have done the simulations,” said OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria. “In the end we come out and say: Why are we spending so much time, so much effort and so much talent in trying to find ways to compensate for a bad decision when you do not necessarily have to take the bad decision?”
Britain's workers and their trade unions are not just worried about their post-’Brexit’ finances, but also their rights. When shopworkers’ group Usdaw this week joined the likes of the GMB (Britain’s General Union), Unison (for public services workers), Unite the Union, the National Farmers Union and the Communication Workers Union in backing the ‘Remain’ campaign, its general secretary John Hannet said: “If we were to leave the EU, there is a clear risk that employment rights and protections would be dismantled by a UK Conservative government. Usdaw will always campaign to protect employment rights ... this campaign will be best served through remaining in Europe.”
The four biggest unions in the UK — representing nearly four million members — are now all campaigning against a ‘Brexit’, while the Trades Union Congress has warned that workplace rights underpinned by EU law will come under threat if Britain votes to leave.
So far, only the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union (80,000 members) is on the other side. The fact that so many of these left-wing organisations are backing the team being led by Tories Cameron and George Osborne reveals just how scared they must be of being taken out of the EU.
It all adds up to quite an endorsements deficit for the ‘Leave’ campaign to make up. Ecclestone, Ian Botham and Katie Hopkins may be on their side, but Johnson and Co really need some big-hitters to come out of the woodwork if they are to win back the ground lost due to Obama’s intervention.
Martin Downer is a freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom.