The Yes campaign knew that their principal sponsor was tarnished goods. The politician who most wanted AV – Nick Clegg – was also Britain’s most toxic politician because of his screeching u-turn on tuition fees. Yes decided that their best hope was to style themselves as the ‘People’s campaign for fairer votes’, fighting the dinosaur politicians. Yes even circulated dinosaur toys across Fleet Street to reinforce the message.
Yes enlisted a whole series of charities to sign up to the ‘people’s campaign for AV’. The aim was to present the pro-AV side of the argument as a movement for change that was ethical, young, grassroots-based and above politics. William Norton of the No campaign set out to destroy this strategy and succeeded. In a massive letter-writing campaign to the charities, their trustees and to the Charity Commission itself, he put the heat on, questioning whether it was legitimate for charities to become involved in such a political campaign. One-by-one the charities resigned from the Yes campaign and a central plank of the pro-AV strategy was destroyed.
The other key component of No’s anti-Yes operation was undertaken by Dr Lee Rotherham. He, with Piotr Brzezinski, did the spadework which exposed the commercial interests motivating the Yes campaign’s key funder. Ed Howker, investigative journalist, then took this research forward and published it in The Spectator. George Osborne gave an interview to the Mail in which he said Yes’s funding stank. Yes were losing another of their claims to the moral high ground and the scrutiny of the Electoral Reform Society also sowed dizzying anxiety within the Yes campaign.
Tory strategists still wonder why Yes never deployed the anti-Cameron card. Six weeks before referendum day Conservative focus groups found that the only issue that moved significant numbers of the contest’s crucial floating voters into the Yes column was the idea that AV would seriously damage Cameron and the Conservatives. An anti-Cameron campaign might not have been enough to deliver a Yes vote but it would have made the race a lot more competitive. Peter Mandelson may not be to everyone’s taste but strategically – and not for the first time – he was right that Yes needed to target Cameron, just as No was targeting Clegg. Eventually Yes did choose this tactic but the limited momentum they did have for this message hit the roadblocks of the Royal Wedding and the capture of Osama bin Laden. Yes were left with Eddie Izzard as their star weapon. The man who had campaigned for the Euro and for Gordon Brown proved that you can be third time unlucky.