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Campaigners to stop Brexit prepare six-week advertising blitz

The Financial Times logo The Financial Times 20/02/2018 Henry Mance in London

Best for Britain, a group part-funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is planning an advertising blitz to promote the benefits of close alignment with the EU © Reuters Best for Britain, a group part-funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is planning an advertising blitz to promote the benefits of close alignment with the EU Exactly two years ago David Cameron returned from talks in Brussels to launch the campaign to keep Britain in the EU. Now a handful of well-funded groups are trying to succeed where Mr Cameron failed.

Anti-Brexit campaigners are intensifying their activities over the next six weeks, ahead of expected parliamentary votes on whether Britain should remain in a European customs union. Victory would blow a hole in Theresa May’s strategy for leaving the EU.

Best for Britain, a group part-funded by George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, is planning an advertising blitz to promote the benefits of close alignment with the EU. “There will be some billboards but there’ll also be a lot of digital spending too,” said Eloise Todd, its chief executive, adding that her group was “taking a leaf directly” from the Leave campaign.

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Best for Britain has so far declared donations of around £1.2m. That includes £500,000 from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and £172,000 from an online fundraiser, set up after rightwing newspapers attacked Mr Soros this month.

The group will target much of its advertising at voters in the Midlands and the north.

Its messages — such as “Fight for your right to stop Brexit” — are more strident than that of an allied group, Open Britain, which was formed out of the pre-referendum Remain campaign and which initially set its sights on securing a soft Brexit.

Since the 2016 vote, campaigns against Brexit have suffered from various weaknesses: a perception that they are seeking to undo a democratic vote; the lack of a high-profile leader; and an association with men who have been attacked as members of the “global elite”, such as Mr Soros, Tony Blair, the former prime minister, and Nick Clegg, the former deputy prime minister.

Lee Rotherham, a former official in Vote Leave, the official Out campaign, said there were “fissures” within anti-Brexit campaigns and that it would not “take too much” for some groups to become reconciled to leaving the EU. 

Exactly two years ago David Cameron returned from talks in Brussels to launch the campaign to keep Britain in the EU © Jason Alden/Bloomberg Exactly two years ago David Cameron returned from talks in Brussels to launch the campaign to keep Britain in the EU But the pro-EU movement now also has some of the grassroots passion that was absent from Mr Cameron’s Remain campaign. Best for Britain has more than 500,000 on its mailing lists; Open Britain has a similar number of Facebook followers.

The anti-Brexiters are also helped by tight parliamentary arithmetic, which saw the government lose a key vote in December. That vote, to give parliament a legal guarantee to veto any final Brexit deal, followed an email barrage from pro-EU activists.

Anti-Brexiters argue that Mrs May now lacks a majority in the House of Commons for taking Britain out of a customs union with the EU.

An amendment to the customs bill will seek to keep the UK in the EU customs union. A similar amendment to the trade bill would require it to “take all necessary steps” to agree “a customs union with the EU in the same terms as existed before exit day”.

MPs are expected to vote on the amendments in March. “It’s an absolutely critical moment,” said Francis Grove-White, deputy director of Open Britain.

Success depends on two set of actors: pro-EU Conservative MPs and the opposition Labour party.

The Conservative rebels’ ranks may be strengthened by Damian Green and Justine Greening, pro-European MPs who recently left the cabinet. Mr Green spoke out on Monday, telling the BBC that the government should release impact assessments on Brexit.

Anti-Brexiters argue that Mrs May now lacks a majority in the House of Commons for taking Britain out of a customs union with the EU © Getty Images Anti-Brexiters argue that Mrs May now lacks a majority in the House of Commons for taking Britain out of a customs union with the EU Labour, meanwhile, held a meeting of its Brexit “subcommittee” on Monday. Shadow ministers are thought to be inching towards a position of advocating that the UK stays in the customs union after Brexit.

Emily Thornberry, shadow foreign secretary, gave succour to Europhile Labour MPs on Sunday when she said some form of customs union was the only way to avoid a hard border with Ireland.

For now, the party is maintaining a stance that the customs union is a “viable end position” rather than official policy. It declined to comment on the Monday meeting, with aides saying that any formal decision would be taken at full shadow cabinet rather than the subcommittee.

Opponents of Brexit know that winning in parliament is not enough. Mr Soros has predicted the economic impact of Brexit “will become much more painfully obvious in the next six months”. He has set the challenge of pushing public opinion to “a tipping point in the next six to nine months” — before MPs are due to vote on the deal negotiated by Mrs May.

But even that may not be the end of the fight to stop Brexit. “That’s a crunch point as things stand,” said Best for Britain’s Ms Todd, leaving the door ajar.

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard

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