A Pro-Brexit campaigner hands out leaflets at Liverpool Street station in London, Wednesday, March 23, 2016. With less than three months to go until a June 23 referendum, Britain's anti-EU campaigners are bitterly divided, with two rival camps battling over which will be the standard-bearer in the campaign, and over how to win the historic vote. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A Pro-Brexit campaigner hands out leaflets at Liverpool Street station in London © AP

Believers in British exit from the EU could have sung Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” before leaving tearful messages with the White House switchboard begging Barack Obama to change his mind. Short of that, there was no way to handle last week’s presidential rejection of their cause with any less poise.

They implied colonial chippiness on his part and doubted that he spoke for the real America, citing such authorities as Senator Ted Cruz and any Pentagon goon who once said something nice about the Queen as truer guides to Washington’s strategic priorities. This is how people behave when they see the world through cataracts of absolute belief. The passion that Leavers claim as their edge over Remainers addles their judgment, as passion tends to.

The Leave campaign is not incompetent as such. It is performing as well as you would expect given the underlying strength of its case, and maybe better. As long as every friendly nation im­plores Britain to stay in the EU, Leavers cannot win the argument on geopolitics. As long as experts differ only on the margin by which exit would impoverish us, at least in the near term, they cannot win the argument on economics. As long as no country enjoys the benefits of the EU without its burdens, they cannot cite models to emulate. Michael Gove, the justice secretary, did not fall back on Albania last week in a fit of eccentricity but out of a dearth of options.

Leavers should sense these realities boxing them into an inescapable conclusion. Their best and only chance in this referendum is to run their campaign as a single-issue crusade against immigration. It may not be enough to win, given the primacy of economic concerns among voters, but it is enough to lose well and discomfit the other side.

Raging against the free movement of labour to the exclusion of all else allows Leavers to stoke the second most salient of public anxieties. It implies total withdrawal from the European single market but that is an easier sell than Leave’s holding position, which rotates between models of separation — Switzerland, Canada, Ukraine — depending on the day of the week and the person asking. An extreme position can withstand scrutiny better than a vaporous one.

As a rule of thumb, every day until June 23 that we spend in conjecture about trade deals and economic futures is a coup for Remain. Every day we spend talking about immigration is a win for Leave. The campaigns are not two competing answers to the same question but two competing attempts to set the question.

Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence party, once said he would swap some prosperity for lower immigration. It was a glint of coherence and candour that should guide the respectable helmsmen of the Leave campaign, wary as they are of Mr Farage’s sulphurous opportunism. Swing voters are, almost by definition, discerning people. Pretend that EU exit entails no cost, and they will smell the snake oil at 50 paces. Confess to a trade-off, and they might at least engage with the choice.

There is no disgrace in feeling a pang for a more homogenous, less dynamic society, even if that pang is not felt by me or, if they are honest with themselves, by Mr Gove and that other cosmopolitan Leaver, Boris Johnson, London mayor. A campaign that fans these instincts can darken into something distasteful but it is not as if Leavers have a reputation for unrufflable dignity to lose. Last week, one American president recapitulating the position of every other American president since the genesis of the European project frazzled them into weeping like jilted lovers for a “special relationship” that never existed outside their hearts. They can only go up from here.

And their opponents can only squirm on the topic of migration. EU membership, and even Swiss-style semi-detachment, imposes an extreme openness on labour markets that most people resent. Remainers can only argue that it is worth it. Voters secretly agree, judging by their revealed preferences: migration was absent from last year’s general election campaign and the government routinely flunks its own net-inflow target without incurring a political cost. But here is a chance to test that forbearance: a referendum that can be framed as a direct vote on our porous labour market.

If Leavers frame it as anything else, they are done for. Other allied countries will voice variations of Mr Obama’s line. More and more employers will weigh in. Albania might remind us that it wants to join the EU. There is only one case for exit that cannot be laughed out of town by relevant third parties. Leavers’ path to victory — or respectable defeat — is monomania.

janan.ganesh@ft.com

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