Brexit. This spurious word has been on the tip of the entire nation’s tongue for what seems like an eternity. The question of whether Britain should remain in the European Union or not is a pertinent one and is no doubt sparking much debate throughout households around the country. Over the last few weeks, we have watched David Cameron’s attempt to re-negotiate the terms of Britain’s membership in the EU in an attempt to appease the nation and subvert the increasing support for Brexit. The conclusion of all the campaigning and the ultimate result will be realised in just over three months’ time when the British public will vote on whether to remain in the European Union or not. Perhaps though, in the meantime there are lessons in crisis communications and reputation management that can be learnt from the current state of affairs. From a communications perspective the debate and the two possible outcomes can be compared to a crisis situation for a large conglomerate. Comparisons can be drawn from the scandals facing Volkswagen or TalkTalk and in the even more recent past Uber. What these crises and Brexit have in common is that the consequences remain unknown both in terms of the ultimate outcome and the fate of those involved. The politicians and the company executive’s fates will be/are determined by their actions. In other words, the stakes are high for all parties involved.
The Brexit crisis has come to a head over the last few weeks as key politicians in Cameron’s cabinet have pledged allegiance to the ‘In’ and ‘Out’ campaigns, ultimately revealing whether or not they stand behind him. So, who are the key players and how are they faring in the crisis so far?
First, we turn to the Prime Minister, David Cameron. Arguably, he is at the centre of the crisis and perhaps in the most interesting position in terms of what he can achieve but nevertheless he has the most to lose if the vote does not go in his favour. David Cameron has been furiously re-negotiating the terms of the UK’s membership to the EU in an effort to improve the UK’s position as well as encourage the public to vote no to Brexit. What has he actually achieved though? And how is he handling himself?
According to BBC News, in terms of Britain’s sovereignty, Cameron has secured a commitment to exempt Britain from a closer union with the EU as well as negotiating a new “red-card” power, meaning if 55% of national parliaments agree, they can veto a commission proposal. It remains to be seen whether such a power would ever be used and whether the government could ever mobilise that kind of multi-national support. On the other hand, in terms of migration and benefits, Cameron had to concede one of his most crucial points. He failed in his original demand to ban migrant workers from sending child benefit money home in the face of strong opposition from Poland. According to the Mail Online, voters consider this a major failure in Cameron’s negotiations. An opinion poll concluded that 62% think net migration to the UK from the EU is too high and Cameron’s failure arguably means that migrants will not be discouraged. From a crisis communications perspective this is a major loss for Cameron. In this debate public opinion is everything and given the migrant crisis, migration issues are at the forefront of voters’ minds. The concession that Cameron made will undoubtedly encourage some people into the Brexit camp.
On the other side of the debate are those that believe the negative aspects of being a part of the EU far outweigh the positives. Michael Gove’s allegiance to the Out camp was not wholly unexpected due to persistent rumours of his position. On the other hand Boris Johnson’s is seen as a demagogue but has been generally well received. He has positioned himself as deeply pro-European and does not believe it is necessary to equate voting out with being anti-Europe. In the Telegraph, he detailed his views on the subject concluding that he will vote no but that ultimately, his opinion and those of his peers will be forgotten. In reputation terms, perhaps it is Gove who has taken a bigger risk. Not only has Gove allied himself with the exit campaign, but he has also explicitly criticised Cameron’s concessions. The Independent reported Gove stating that the EU agreement is not legally binding and as such the concessions agreed by Cameron could well be meaningless. In terms of Gove’s reputation, it is difficult to fully understand the ramifications of his decision to so publically undermine the Prime Minister. It can be argued that in the political sphere these sorts of tactics are necessary to get ahead. However, they can also have a negative impact on public perception and significantly affect reputation.
Ultimately, the crisis is not yet resolved. The debate has descended into political infighting and scaremongering, resulting in a lack of clarity around the issues at hand. The ramifications for the UK of remaining in the EU or choosing to leave cannot be predicted. However, it seems that, if the vote is to be a true representation of public opinion, politicians need to devote more effort to discussion of the two sides of the argument rather than simply resorting to political infighting or attacking the opposition. It remains to be seen whether Cameron, Johnson or Gove have damaged their reputations or whether they, in fact, will benefit from their respective stances. Arguably, they are all staking their careers on their positions. Nevertheless, the power to resolve this crisis remains in the hands of the people, who, in the eternal words of The Clash will be thinking on the 23rd, “Should I stay or should I go?”