In launching his committee’s report yesterday on the costs and benefits of EU membership, Tyrie was scathing in his assessment of the testimony he’d heard from the leaders of both official sides of the campaign: ‘A few grains of truth accompany the mountain of exaggeration and unqualified assertion.’
‘The arms race of ever more lurid claims and counter-claims made by both the leave and remain sides is not just confusing the public. It is impoverishing political debate. Today is the first day of the main campaign. It needs to begin with an amnesty on misleading, and at times bogus, claims. The public are thoroughly fed up with them. The public are right.’
Not half as fed up with them as those of us who’ve been in this debate for years, pushing for the UK to reclaim its independence. On reading through the report and the transcripts of the witnesses, one is not so much angered at the ‘lurid claims’ of the Remain camp. We expected that.
What is concerning is the testimony of the leaders of the official Leave EU group. Reading through the report and the transcripts of testimony, the question keeps arising: How the hell did we end up on the same side of the argument as these knuckleheads?
Even in the basic rules of how to present and persuade, Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings failed before the committee. Start with the transcripts of the oral evidence by Elliott.
You will see that his behaviour towards the committee was arrogant and ill-mannered. Which is why I say ‘knucklehead’: the committee was covered by press and broadcasting, and was a terrific platform to deliver newsworthy, crisp messages for reporters.
Instead, Elliott ensured his appearance started with the message that he had to be dragged to the Commons committee by the chairman: ‘I think I should put it in the public domain,’ began Tyrie, ‘that the Committee was forced to summon you under a parliamentary order to get you here.’
Tyrie said this was the first time he had ever felt the need to issue such a thing to get a witness to appear. At which point, Elliott should have given an unconditional apology and got on with answering questions from the committee.
Instead he went on about how his ‘diary’ could not be ‘rescheduled.’ Then he started describing a trip to Switzerland and ‘a host of activities,’ and on into discussion (which goes on for pages and pages of the transcript) of with just whom at Leave EU Elliott had discussed his appearance before the committee.
Finally, the chairman was forced to demand: ‘Do you accept that all of this – the mucking around of parliament that you have gone in for here – was a mistake?’
The only sane answer to that one would have been, ‘Yes, sir.’
Instead Elliott – with a kind of patronising arrogance one usually associates with Le Roi Soleil – replied: ‘I regret it has dragged on longer than I would have hoped.’
It was an appalling performance, especially since the point of the Leave campaign is supposed to be to return power to Parliament. Yet the head of the official Leave campaign treated a Commons committee with contempt.
The contempt, and the arrogance, went on through Elliott’s testimony, in particular in his refusal to back down from the Leave campaign’s famously-flawed claim of £350m a week savings from Brexit.
In the end, ‘the Committee found that Vote Leave's core campaign number – the idea that leaving the EU would give the country a £350m a week fiscal windfall to spend on hospitals and schools – is "highly misleading." The £350m a week, and the suggestion that this money can and should be spent on the NHS, decorates Vote Leave’s "battle bus". The Committee found that Vote Leave’s persistence with this claim is “deeply troubling".’
Elliott’s appearance distilled every mistake the official Leave campaign is making. The campaign concentrates on economic arguments and projections which cannot be defended, while offering no plan for Brexit that would protect British trade and investment – by which I mean the EEA-EFTA option.
The official Leave campaign rejected the idea of any plan – and left themselves wide open to the Cameron-Osborne lurid economic threats -- because they insisted that the SNP had a plan during the independence referendum, and the government tore the plan apart, therefore the smart thing would be to have no plan.
When it was pointed out to Elliott and Cummings that the problem with the SNP plan was that it was a bad plan, easily torn apart, and the solution was instead to have a good plan, they just couldn’t grasp it. Here we see the result: like the management consultancy cliché has it, failure to plan is planning to fail.
The testimony by Dominic Cummings was even worse.
Besides his inability to understand how Britain’s rebate works, he argues with the chairman in a patronising way, starting off one comment about movement of funds from the Treasury with: ‘When you are sitting in your slippers talking to Mrs Tyrie, looking at your bank statements…’
Tyrie snapped back with a reminder that he used to work in the Treasury, and that Cummings’ explanation was just plain wrong.
As so much of what Cummings said was wrong. Richard North over at EU referendum takes it apart in detail.
All I will add is that yet again we have a Leave campaigner given a brilliant national platform on which he could sell a plan on how the British can leave the EU with confidence. Yet again the campaigner failed out of arrogance, intellectual laziness -- and bad manners -- to present any saleable case at all.
In the introduction, we are warned: ‘This Report focuses exclusively on the economic consequences of EU membership and Brexit. For many, the case for staying in or leaving turns on more than economic logic’