Are Osborne’s ‘overblown’ Brexit numbers doing more harm than good?

Lots of people are sceptical about the Treasury's apocalyptic warnings, including the public, economic experts and most of the Remain campaign


‘When you hear those kind forecasts of a recession, half a million job losses in the next two years . . . youth unemployment rising by ten per cent. Just answer yes or no: do you believe those economic forecasts?’

When Victoria Derbyshire asked this question at the first of the BBC’s EU referendum debates last night, the decisive answer was no.

The response was, unsurprisingly, loudest from the Leave side, but spread across into the undecideds, and included a smattering of Remain voices.

This is just one indication among many that George Osborne and David Cameron’s apolcalyptic Brexit warnings are not believed by the public, and may be diminishing trust in the Remain campaign.

Today, the think-tank Civitas has published a report — ‘Economic With The Truth‘ — claiming that the Treasury’s claims are based on a false premise.

The Financial Times has published analysis of the latest Treasury report suggesting that, while it’s reasonable to forecast a severe economic shock post-Brexit, the Treasury’s methodology is suspect.

It seems to be reverse-engineering its analysis to ensure politically advantageous findings (much as Osborne has done with his promise to balance the budget in 2019/20).

‘Put bluntly,’ the authors conclude, ‘the Treasury has made up the numbers but not exaggerated wildly.’

It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the Government’s colleagues on the Remain campaign are unwilling to defend the Treasury’s figures.

In last nights debate, Alan Johnson glossed over Osborne’s forecasts, pointing instead to all the other, more measured, economic warnings, from the IMF, the OECD, the Bank of England and the IFS.

Earlier this week, Nicola Sturgeon openly attacked the Treasury, calling their figures ‘overblown’ and accusing the Conservatives of ‘fear based campaign that starts to insult people’s intelligence.’

Sturgeon believes that this sort of campaigning will have a negative effect, and the evidence already, to some degree, bear that out.

YouGov poll published this week shows that 69 per cent of people don’t trust Cameron’s claims on the EU, and that the number is increasing as the campaign progresses.

Last week, Evening Standard/Ipsos MORI polling found that 55 per cent of people absolutely reject the prime minister’s claims on security, and some of the biggest laughs in last night’s debate came when audience members sceptically invoked his warnings of World War Three.

Of course, the Conservatives have previously been well-served by their unique blend of scaremongering and arbitrary numbers — see the Scottish referendum, the general election and half a decade of austerity — but Downing Street needs to seriously consider the cracks that are starting to appear.

Since a core plank of the Leave campaign is to peddle conspiracy theories about the anti-Brexit elite, and to cast doubt on economic facts, the numbers used by the Remain campaign must be persuasive to the public, and must stand up to scrutiny.

At present, the Conservative campaign is not meeting that standard, is feeding the rhetoric of the Leave side, and may be undermining the Remain campaign as a whole.

Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin is editor of Left Foot Forward. Follow her on Twitter

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