Smoke, mirrors and custard creams

And so the game of smoke and mirrors begins……

From the moment David Cameron announced that he would hold a European In/Out referendum before the end of 2017, it was clear that much of the campaign would be dominated by presentation.

Yes, there are crucial political issues at stake, including control over migration, access to our welfare state and how closely the UK is aligned with Europe in the future. But the simple fact is that most people’s level of engagement with politics in general, and this campaign in particular, relies on the snap shot, the sound bite, the 30 seconds of headlines snatched between popping the toast on and grabbing the car keys in the morning.

Whichever campaign can master that sound bite may well prove the winner.

And so today we reached our first real test of this theory, with the publication by the European Commission of a draft deal to keep the UK in the EU.

Written in fairly dense legalese, the document gave succour to both sides of the debate.

For the Prime Minister, it allowed him to claim, among other things, that he has fulfilled his election pledge of securing a four year emergency brake on migrants receiving welfare. His opponents pointed to the graduated approach, whereby migrants could gradually claim increased benefits the longer they live in the UK. Those campaigning for a Brexit also pointed out that any such deal would need to be agreed by all EU member states, a not inconsiderable bump in the road.

And this is where the smoke and mirrors come into play. At no stage in the campaign that we are embarking on will there be such a thing as a clear cut issue. Each side will spin and argue, claiming victories when none truly exist. The key to this referendum will be presentation.

And the problem for the In campaign, is that it’s very hard to make an argument revolving around the benefits of a single market for creating a trade surplus sound sexy.

Nearly two years ago, in the run up to the 2014 European Parliament elections, Nick Clegg took on Nigel Farage in series of debates. His problem, echoed again now, is that the arguments for remaining as part of the EU are complex, difficult and, frankly, unexciting.

Farage, on the other hand, was able to use his proven rhetorical expertise to catch the imagination of the audience. We all like a change, a Brexit would be exciting and empowering, and a seemingly patriotic message of telling a ‘Jonny Foreigner’ to stop telling us what to do is a much more compelling one than the benefits of a working hours directive.

Jacob Rees Mogg, the Conservative MP for North East Somerset, summed this up perfectly in a story this weekend. Faced with EU caps on trans-fats, such as those used in biscuits, the ardent Eurosceptic vowed to “save our custard cream” from the clutches of EU bureaucracy. It may not have been strictly accurate, but it captured column inches.

Those campaigning to remain in the EU need to find their soundbites quickly, or the sound of a bite of custard cream might come back to haunt them.