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Britain’s June 23 referendum on the EU will take the historic decision whether the country remains a member of the bloc or forges ahead on its own path. But even though the consequences of the vote could barely be greater, the result may largely be in the hands of the individuals on the two sides of the debate — the Remain and the Leave campaigns. Both take in figures from the government, the opposition, business and beyond.
For many, the campaign will not just determine the future of the country but also their own personal prospects. The two teams both face the challenge of working with unaccustomed partners, temperamental star players and — perhaps — plodding journeymen.
The battle between them has been further embittered by the March resignation from the cabinet of Iain Duncan Smith, one of the leading lights of the Brexit campaign. Although he says his departure as pensions secretary was in protest over planned welfare cuts, not Europe, it is a blow against David Cameron’s authority as prime minister at a crucial time.
Here is a practical guide of how the teams — and the talent within them — stack up, and who the potential match-winners may be.
Ever since the idea of a Brexit referendum was broached, the US president has made clear his support for Britain’s continued membership of the EU. He believes that the UK is both more influential and more useful to the US inside the EU rather than outside.
In an extraordinary contribution to the debate during an April visit to London, Mr Obama warned that, if Britain left the EU, it would be at “the back of the queue” for a trade deal with Washington. But UK and US officials are unsure whether such a strong intervention in the affairs of another country will backfire politically.
The longstanding German chancellor has often used her negotiating skills to fix things for Britain in the EU. But occasionally she has failed to deliver — British officials believed they had her support for blocking Jean-Claude Juncker’s bid to become European Commission president in 2014, only to see her shift positions once the German press and opinion polls supported his candidacy.
This time, Ms Merkel advised Mr Cameron not to rely on her backing alone in his push for EU reform. He promptly sought allies in other capitals. Meanwhile Ms Merkel has shown strong public support for Mr Cameron, telling the Bundestag in February that it was in Germany’s “national interest” to keep Britain in the EU and saying on the eve of the Brexit summit in Brussels that Mr Cameron’s demands were “justified and necessary”.
The Labour leader is supposedly on the same page as David Cameron over the referendum but you would not always guess it from the way he talks about the EU.
Firstly, Corbyn has refused to appear on the same platform as the prime minister — mindful of the damage done to Labour in Scotland by working closely with the Tories to oppose independence. Secondly, he has criticised Cameron’s renegotiation, saying that plans to curb in-work migrant benefits are “irrelevant”.
Corbyn, a Eurosceptic by nature, sees the bloc as a free market system in hock to the banks. He wants the EU to strike a more generous deal to accept migrants from war-torn Syria and Iraq. Yet he argues the need to stay in — on balance — for its positive impact on the environment and jobs.
Brahmin of Labour’s pro-European movement, Lord Mandelson (aka the Prince of Darkness) has an impeccable CV when it comes to making the case for Britain staying in the EU. A former EU trade commissioner and Labour business secretary, he knows the economic arguments back to front.
He is also a former Northern Ireland secretary and has powerfully argued that a Brexit could set back the peace process. The only problem is that he has never shaken off the Machiavellian image he acquired as Tony Blair’s consigliere during the New Labour years and his fluency can (to hostile ears) sound like pro-Brussels spin.
Founder of City PR company Finsbury, Rudd is treasurer of Britain Stronger In Europe and uses his extensive network of contacts to mobilise business behind the Remain campaign.
The super-smooth Rudd is a member of the New Labour aristocracy and therefore not entirely trusted by David Cameron, but No 10 appreciates his role as a behind-the-scenes fixer and corporate fundraiser.
He was instrumental in signing up former M&S boss Stuart Rose to chair the campaign. Claims he is the man Cameron is counting on to win the referendum might be overdoing it. But the Finsbury boss could be pivotal in rallying business for a last-minute push.
A divisive minister with a transactional approach to politics, the chancellor is a powerful figure with hopes to succeed David Cameron as prime minister — but for that, he needs a Yes vote in the referendum.
To pave the way for that vote, Cameron urged Osborne to steer away from controversy in his set piece March budget. But instead, Osborne’s planned mixture of welfare cuts and tax handouts produced a toxic fallout and the spectacular resignation of pensions minister and leading Brexit supporter Iain Duncan Smith.
The blow to Osborne’s authority — and that of Cameron himself — was one of the most serious setbacks the Remain campaign suffered in its early months.
The former Conservative leader forged his reputation as an arch-Eurosceptic, fighting an unsuccessful 2001 general election campaign on an anti-euro “save the pound” ticket.
But after four years as Tory foreign secretary, he has emerged as an articulate supporter of Cameron’s campaign to keep Britain in the EU. Tory MPs lament the fact that he “went native” at the Foreign Office.
Lord Hague is no longer in frontline politics but he remains popular with grass roots Conservatives and — thanks to his self-effacing style — has wider popular appeal beyond the Tory party.
The former chief executive of Marks and Spencer is leading the cross-party Britain Stronger In Europe campaign, although there are some who have questioned his suitability for the task.
Although he used to run one of Britain’s best known retailers, Lord Rose is not exactly a household name and can appear stiff as a media performer. On one occasion he forgot the name of the campaign he leads.
Nevertheless he has impeccable contacts in the business community and believes strongly in the EU case; in a campaign dominated by politicians, he is likely to cut a reassuring corporate figure.
Assumed the Tory leadership in 2005 with a promise that his party would “stop banging on about Europe”; a decade later he is indulging its longstanding obsession by holding an EU referendum.
Cameron was forced into holding the in/out vote by rebellious Tory MPs and the advance of the UK Independence party; the vote on June 23 will be the defining moment of his premiership.
A moderate Eurosceptic, Cameron is now in the position of passionately campaigning to keep Britain in a “reformed EU”. He is still well regarded by voters and is the Remain campaign’s biggest asset.
The Scottish National party leader could be a major beneficiary of Brexit, if it triggered another independence referendum. Yet she has denied all Machiavellian intentions, and instead sought to lay out the centre-left’s case for the EU — workers’ rights, consumer protection, possibilities to work and study abroad, and a joint response to the refugee crisis.
Ms Sturgeon is no fan of David Cameron’s deal in Brussels — renegotiation is “too grand a word”, she says — and is unlikely to campaign with the prime minister.
Can she appeal to voters south of the border? “If people outside Scotland are happy to listen, I’ll be happy to try to persuade them.”
The emollient Johnson is widely seen in the Labour party as the leader who never was. A few years ago many Labour MPs would have happily ditched Ed Miliband as leader if only Johnson had given the word — but he never did. The former postman and one-time general secretary of the Communication Workers Party is one of the most experienced figures in the party. He served as education secretary and trade secretary under Tony Blair — and home secretary under Gordon Brown. His memoirs, “This Boy”, describe growing up in the slums of postwar Britain, orphaned by the age of 12.
A close friend of David Cameron, the justice secretary spoke of the “painful” decision to campaign for a Brexit, having grappled for weeks over whether to put his principles before his loyalty to the prime minister.
Cameron accepted that Gove had a 30-year commitment to campaigning for a Brexit and the two men agreed that they would fight each other in a spirit of mutual respect.
Two days later Gove, regarded as an intellectual force in the Tory party, claimed that the Brussels deal secured by Cameron could be undone in the European Court of Justice.
The boisterous Banks has spent a small fortune trying to ensure that Nigel Farage retains a loud voice in the Out movement, opening his cheque book for the Leave.EU and Grassroots Out campaigns.
The tycoon, worth an estimated £100m, founded insurance firms Brightside and Go Skippy and owns a South African diamond mine. The father-of-five has a Russian wife and owns a mansion near Bristol.
Banks has a taste for the outspoken insult, deriding Douglas Carswell as “borderline autistic” and claiming that Vote Leaves are not fit to run a “sweetshop”.
The Vote Leave chief executive has achieved a lot in his relatively short career. Still not yet 40, his CV includes founding rightwing pressure group the TaxPayersAlliance, setting up civil liberties group Big Brother Watch and acting as campaign director in the successful fight against the introduction of the alternative vote in 2011. A sharp thinker, Westminster insiders appreciate his well-spoken manners.
His role in the current referendum has proved explosive, however: Mr Elliott and fellow campaign chief Dominic Cummings stepped down from the Vote Leave board last month after weeks of infighting. Despite his impressive political record, Mr Elliott’s reputation is riding on the outcome of this vote.
Margaret Thatcher’s former chancellor is now in his eighties but he remains an active political force, filling a place on the Vote Leave campaign committee and delivering well-timed blows to David Cameron’s case.
Now domiciled in France, Lord Lawson believes the EU imposes excessive burdens on British business and claims that Cameron’s attempts to reform the bloc are “trivial and inconsequential”.
“We have within our grasp a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to seize control of our destiny — to be free, to prosper, and to stand tall,” he says.
Iain Duncan Smith
One of the original Maastricht rebels, the former Conservative leader has a record of disobeying Number 10 on European issues stretching back more than 20 years.
His resignation in March as pensions secretary — prompted, he said, by proposed cuts to disability benefits — plunged the government into crisis. A firm Eurosceptic, he has been accused of using welfare reform as a figleaf; his real concern, critics say, is the EU referendum
Duncan Smith is widely admired in Eurosceptic circles and believes Cameron’s EU renegotiation will do little to stem the flow of migrant workers to Britain.
The Vote Leave campaign chief is mischievous, sparky and deeply divisive. A longstanding critic of David Cameron, he once said: “As Bismarck said about Napoleon III, Cameron is a sphinx without a riddle.”
Cummings, a former Tory adviser to Michael Gove at the education department, despised Cameron’s lack of ideological fervour and did his best to stop Number 10 knowing what his boss was doing.
Gove and Cummings are now in harness at the top of the Brexit campaign, fighting to liberate Britain from Brussels diktat and regulation. Expect a robust and entertaining campaign as a result.
The idiosyncratic MP for Clacton was a freethinking Tory before he broke ranks with his own party and left to join Ukip in late 2014. He stood for re-election, becoming Ukip’s first ever elected MP. Last summer he was the only Ukip candidate to win a seat.
Carswell, a libertarian free-marketeer, is visibly uncomfortable with Nigel Farage’s dog-whistle anti-immigration stance. Farage was meanwhile furious that Carswell refused to take all the “short money” that he was due as Ukip’s one and only MP. The two men are now barely on speaking terms.
An MEP for the past 17 years, and married to a German wife, Nigel Farage is perhaps the most divisive face of British Euroscepticism.
The leader of the UK Independence party has promised to keep focusing on immigration, which he says may be well above the government’s official figures.
He is seeking to appeal to non-voters, and has already campaigned together with the former Labour MP George Galloway, in a bid to attract Muslim supporters. But the referendum comes at a challenging time: Ukip is also busy trying to win seats in May’s elections, and Mr Farage has fallen out with the party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, who wants a softer, economic message
Charismatic, popular and — according to his critics — downright opportunistic, the London mayor is the most prominent figure in the Leave campaign and the one person David Cameron did not want to fight.
Johnson, the son of a Eurocrat, has made a career in mocking the EU’s absurdities, but few of his friends believe he is a genuine “outer”. They suspect he is positioning himself for a future Tory leadership bid.
The author of a recent biography on Churchill, Johnson is likely to adopt plenty of grandiose rhetoric about Britain’s bright future as a sovereign nation once it is unshackled from the Brussels yoke.
The Leader of the House of Commons is one of six cabinet ministers fighting for a Brexit and — arguably — the one who has most got under David Cameron’s skin.
The former TV producer agitated for weeks to be able to start speaking out against Britain’s EU membership, even before Cameron concluded his deal in Brussels. He threatened to resign in protest if he was muzzled.
A confident media performer, he has claimed that it would be “disastrous” for Britain to remain in an unreformed EU and nothing Cameron negotiated in Brussels has changed his mind.
The surprise guest at a Grassroots Out Brexit rally last month, Galloway’s appearance prompted gasps of horror among some rightwingers in the crowd and a mini-walkout.
The leftwing firebrand dubbed “Gorgeous George” is one of Britain’s most colourful politicians, whether pretending to be a cat on a reality TV show or saluting the “indefatigability” of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.
A former MP for the Respect party, he was an outspoken critic of the Iraq war and is a supporter of the Palestinian cause. He is a powerful orator who enjoys support in the Muslim community, but comes with a lot of baggage.
UK’s EU referendum: full coverage and analysis
View the FT’s comprehensive guide to the vote on whether Britain should stay in Europe, with all the latest news, analysis and commentary from both sides of the debate. See more