A Perfect Storm

19 June

At midday on Thursday 16 June, the “Leave” camp had reason to believe they were on a roll. Six consecutive polls put them ahead. George Osborne’s threat of an austerity budget in the event of an Out vote had been shown up as empty, with over fifty Tory MPs plus Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition making it clear that he would never win Parliamentary approval. Bookies' odds had improved from 25% to 40% in seven days. Publicly and privately, the “Out” leadership spoke of the “Remainers” panicking.

Then, just before 1.00pm, Jo Cox MP was fatally shot as she arrived at her constituency surgery in Birstall, West Yorkshire. This is a tragedy for her family and a grim business for every Briton. Cox had a conspicuously appealing profile: strong local roots, Cambridge, Oxfam, campaigner for Syrian refugees, telegenic first-term MP, young children. She was a committed "Inner" but this counts for less than qualities which remind a fractious electorate that politicians need not be villains and may pay a price for putting themselves in the public eye.

Since last Thursday, Jo Cox’s terrible death has broken the news-cycle; initial polls confirm that it has altered the national mood. It trespasses upon bad taste to speak of such an upsetting matter in narrowly political terms. It would, however, be foolish to overlook the change in the weather.

Figures from all over the world have joined to treat the murder as an emblem of public sacrifice. Popular disaffection with the political order cannot but be softened by the murder of a pitch-perfect MP. Monday's Parliamentary tributes will reinforce the symbolism of Cameron and Corbyn standing together in memory of their dead colleague. These gestures do much to quell the challenge to authority whose contribution to the "Leave" campaign we explored earlier. 

Meanwhile, some will feel that the patriotic populism which animates a big slug of Outers has been discredited by an assailant who twice gave his name in court as, "Death to traitors, freedom for Britain". And Remain activists will take these extraordinary events as powerful motivation to give "a final push for Jo".

The Leave camp has had seventy-two hours of respite to tackle a task of Herculean proportions: finding a narrative and a tone of voice to restore momentum, to calm misgivings on the part of undecideds and to see off second thoughts on the part of supporters. Bookies’ odds have fallen to an implied probability of 30% for Brexit. It will be an extraordinary accomplishment to navigate something so close to a perfect storm.