The campaign for a so-called ‘People’s Vote’ has gone strangely quiet during election campaigning. We look at what’s been going on behind the scenes – an ugly tale of cronyism, infighting and questionable links to big business.
Back in late summer, the euphemistically named People’s Vote campaign was riding high. It persuaded hundreds of thousands on to the streets of London to call for a second referendum (conveniently glossing over the fact that Britain already had a ‘People’s vote’ back in 2016). Yet since the start of the election campaign, the shrill voice of Britain’s leading proponents of a second referendum has gone strangely quiet. What has gone wrong?
This week – thanks to an exposé in The Spectator by one of People’s Vote’s leading voices, former New Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell – the story has become a lot clearer. It centres on Roland Rudd (brother of Amber), who recently stepped down as chairman of Open Britain, the largest constituent group under the People’s Vote umbrella.
Rudd’s position became untenable after a strong reaction by staff against his decision to sack two experienced spin-doctors and leading figures at People’s Vote, James McGrory, a former aide to Nick Clegg, and Tom Baldwin, a former advisor to Ed Miliband. McGrory was the campaign’s director and Baldwin its chief of communication; both were widely held responsible for the campaign’s biggest successes. However, Rudd decided unilaterally that he wanted them out on the Sunday night just before the December election was called. This ‘boardroom coup’ appears to have been planned months in advance, with Rudd alleged to have packed the Open Britain board with his own supporters, many of whom had no personal knowledge of the inner workings of the campaign. Campbell describes Rudd’s actions as “cronyism”. He expounds at length on the toxic mix of politics and big business at the heart of the People’s Vote campaign.
“Rudd strikes me as being somewhat motivated by status, titles, by being thought to be important. I have never sensed that he has any great passion for stopping Brexit; have never heard him make what might be termed a strategic contribution. The lavish dinners he hosts appear to be as much about showing clients he can get big political figures to his table as about the campaign. Tony Blair and John Major have both been wheeled out in the hope their presence could help raise huge sums for the campaign. I was surprised to see the UK boss of Huawei at the one Rudd got me to go to; and that mixing of his business interests with the campaign left a nasty stench in my nostrils.”
McGrory and Baldwin had been all set to launch a grand People’s Vote tactical voting plan as soon as the election was announced. Instead, the campaign descended into infighting, with Rudd insisting on the appointment of Patrick Heneghan as interim CEO. The staff at Open Britain were unimpressed, especially when complaints of harassment made against Heneghan were immediately written off as smears. Forty employees passed a vote of confidence against Rudd and Heneghan, with only three employees opposing. The vote preceded a staff walkout.
Finally, on 15 November, Rudd’s resignation was announced to the press. However, this has not brought about an end to the acrimony, as Rudd has left two of his closest allies – Anne Weyman and Geeta Sidhu-Robb – in charge, to the continued annoyance of the Open Britain workforce.
From the pro-Brexit viewpoint, all this infighting has had happy side effects The People’s Vote campaign has thrown away the chance to have any significant impact on the outcome of this election. More worrying, however, is the fact that Rudd and co’s shenanigans confirm our suspicions that the People’s Vote campaign operates within a strange big-money London-centric world of elite political and business leaders, who know little of the feelings of the country at large. Rudd’s lack of self-awareness was painful, even to Campbell, who reports a telling anecdote about Rudd’s efforts to appeal ‘normal’:
“When we were seeking to rebut the charge that the campaign was run by a ‘metropolitan elite’, he booked himself onto the Today programme, where it was announced that ‘We’re now joined by the chairman of the People’s Vote campaign … live from Davos’. For a PR guy, he is not very good at it.”
The ‘witty slogans’ and Enid Blyton-esque picnic lunches beloved of those who marched for a People’s Vote are, on the face of it, harmless enough. But at the heart of the campaign, these twee trappings give way to a darker reality. Remain politics has become an elite status symbol, encouraging a form of dinner-party politics which is antithetical to democracy. Committed Remainers have a tendency to claim that their side has a monopoly of moral authority. Unscrupulous figures like Roland Rudd show that this is pure delusion.
This article was first published on Briefings for Brexit, and is republished with permission. You may not use, copy, distribute, publish, syndicate, sub-license and transmit the whole or any part of such material in any manner and in any format and/or media without the permission of the original publishers.
Photo by MaryECarson – Own work, CC BY 4.0, Link