A much-heralded debate hosted by the BBC in London saw both sides in the European Union referendum campaign digging in their heels and hammering home core arguments, focusing on the economy, immigration and sovereignty.
With polling day on Thursday, each side put forward a strong team. For the Leave camp, former London mayor Boris Johnson was the star turn, supported by MPs Andrea Leadsom and Gisela Stuart. Representing Remain were two leading British politicians who scored electoral successes recently – Ruth Davidson, leader of the Conservatives in Scotland, and Sadiq Khan, Labour’s new London mayor. The third figure was Frances O'Grady, leader of the TUC, speaking, as she said, for the workers of Britain.
The Leave team repeated the mantra that Britain needed to “take back control”, a phrase heard again and again during these two hours, and indeed, over the past few months. It focused on the possibility of Turkey joining the EU and worries about democratic accountability. Those who supported the Leave campaign before the debate will have remained committed to their side with this well-worn rhetoric. Leadsom and Stuart repeatedly described themselves as “mothers and grandmothers”, enabling Ruth Davidson to score one of the few laughs of the evening by pointing out that the Remain camp has just as many mothers and grandmothers which they could call upon – perhaps implying that they just don’t go on about it quite as much as Stuart.
The Remainers were the surprise package of the night. The campaign for staying in the EU has allowed itself to look lacklustre during this campaign and has struggled to sell its more complex economic and immigration arguments. This was not a problem during this debate. The Remain camp has clearly had a shot in the arm, typified particularly by the performances of Davidson and Khan.
While O'Grady was able to speak with authority about workers and their rights, Davidson and Khan repeatedly hammered the Leave campaign, accusing them of lying and misleading voters. They demanded detailed plans on the future, with Khan reminding Johnson that “slogans aren’t policies”. Khan even hit back at accusations that he represented “project fear” by calling the Leave campaign “project hate”, referring to its immigration rhetoric and focusing on what he believed were inaccuracies in the material produced by the Leave campaign.
The Leave team was also blindsided by a question about a £600,000 donation from a former BNP supporter.
By the time the concluding statements were made, Johnson had drawn a standing ovation from some quarters of the hall for his attempt at rousing conclusion suggesting that Thursday would be Britain’s Independence Day.
However, there is no doubt that the real star was Davidson. She highlighted issues she believed were not being presented accurately and demanded justification of key claims from the Leave campaign. Fresh from the Scottish parliamentary election campaign, she demonstrated her ability to fight for what she believes and to communicate in a way that is both engaging and straightforward.