Another Brexit campaign that dodges the hard questions

If you haven’t yet heard a Conservative politician mention “strong and stable leadership”, you soon will. If you are already sick of hearing that formula, you are not its intended audience. General election campaigns are not designed to stimulate people who have followed politics closely since last time the country went to the polls.

We are the fans, the nerds, the geeks. Our participation is guaranteed; our loyalties are mostly set already. And if they are up for negotiation, there is no predicting what policy fetish makes us swing. I recently chaired a packed public meeting, standing room only, where passions ran high on the subject of electoral reform.

Such commitment to the mechanics of British democracy is admirable and unusual. It is the politics of the Monday late-night documentary, while general election campaigns are meant for the Saturday prime-time crowd. Only when journalists want to scream if they hear “strong and stable leadership” one more time, only when Twitter has subjected those words to every conceivable ridicule, will it be safe to presume that the Tory message has found its target: people who are glad if they don’t notice politics.

That is Theresa May’s natural constituency. Citizens in a democracy have some duty to keep abreast of major developments, but they shouldn’t be expected to share the gluttonous news appetites of cranks and pundits. When events tumble over one another without respite, as they did in the days after last year’s referendum, the normal response is alarm, not excitement. When power landed in May’s lap, her unflappable mien on every news channel signalled that it was safe to switch over to something else.

That was an illusion. Confidence in the ability of a prime minister to control events always is. But in the coming election, the Tories do not need to prove that their leader has extraordinary powers. They need only invite voters to imagine Jeremy Corbyn having a go instead.

May cannot guarantee a stable Brexit because the process is inherently uncertain. But the fact of imminent negotiations critical to the national interest is unavoidable. A solid bloc of targeted voters will find the idea of the Labour leader representing the UK in those talks laughable or – if the Tories can persuade them it might actually happen – terrifying. Corbyn’s function in Conservative strategy is to radiate danger, contaminating all forms of opposition to May. The choice is to be framed in terms that leave only one safe box on the ballot paper. By this device, the prime minister hopes to buy a big majority with a minimum of expense in policy commitment. Her manifesto will be slim and vague.

Above all, May does not want a campaign that interrogates the practical reality of taking Britain out of the EU. Her refusal to be drawn on detail was obvious before the election was called, and she will consider it a mission accomplished if that opacity can be sustained over the coming weeks. To that end, the prime minister will be helped by a Labour party that struggles to advance a European position without drawing attention to its own confusion on the subject.

Tory MPs will not give their leader any Brexit grief. Whether anxious ex-remainers or fanatical Brexiters, all of them hope that conspicuous loyalty during the campaign will earn a friendly hearing after polling day, while public deviation from the official script risks being noted in May’s famously indelible book of grudges.

The Tories can also rely on a prejudice against technical discussion of the EU that has long afflicted British politics and media. “Europe” has been a domestic story. It has mostly been a soap opera of Tory schisms and rivalries, sometimes involving walk-on parts for villainous foreigners, filmed every few months on location in Brussels. That maligned city’s name has come to represent a range of institutions, treaties, people and courts that are not all based in the Belgian capital – or, in the case of the European court of human rights in Strasbourg, not part of the EU at all.

If following the day-to-day twists of Westminster politics is a niche hobby in Britain, taking an interest in what goes on under the bonnet of the EU is treated as a kind of perversion. But without a grasp of the way the system is held together, it is hard to appreciate quite how much damage Brexit can do, the cost it inflicts on our allies, and the inevitability, once the UK has torn itself away, that huge patches of the old relationship will have to be quietly sewn back into place – but only after irreparable damage to trade and to British influence.

Whether many voters would have taken a different view last June, had they known more about the EU’s inner workings, is unclear. The forbidding scale of disentanglement could as easily be spun to sound like proof of compromised sovereignty as it can be made to sound like a reason not to incur pointless and painful costs of separation. But that debate still needs to be had, because there are still many degrees of separation to be negotiated.

The Tories are galvanised behind the idea that the only possible Brexit is the mysterious one that May will present to the country as a done deal some time in the future, and for which she wants her mandate up front. So, perversely, the UK will vote twice in as many years on leaving the EU, and most people will still be none the wiser about what that really involves.

This doesn’t feel accidental. It suggests that there is something wrong with the way we conduct campaigns in this country, so the headline issues do not get proper scrutiny. And it suggests there is something dodgy about Brexit that those who keep campaigning for it don’t want to be properly scrutinised.