'It was Project Fear and it didn't work:' Head of Remain campaign says economic dangers of Brexit were exaggerated

Former CEO of Marks & Spencer and the current chair of EG Group Stuart Rose speaking to ITV's Tonight. Credit: ITV

“I should have said no,” insists Lord Rose.

“Instinctively, I didn’t think it was for me. I felt strongly about remaining in Europe but I didn’t think I was the sort of person who should lead that campaign. But sadly, nobody else would volunteer and I was lent on and persuaded and I weakened and I took it.”Stuart Rose - the former CEO of Marks & Spencer and the current chair of EG Group, which is in the process of buying Asda - was announced as chair of what became Britain Stronger in Europe in October 2015.In an interview with ITV’s Tonight programme, ahead of the fifth anniversary of the referendum on membership of the EU, Rose said he turned down the role several times before pressure from Andrew Feldman (the former chair of the Conservative Party) and David Sainsbury persuaded him to change his mind.

"Instinctively, I knew it wasn't for me...I was off message once or twice" - Stuart Rose says he regrets joining the Remain campaign, Britain Stronger in Europe

“They were desperate to get somebody, they were scrabbling around,” Rose recalls. “It was sort of slightly ‘listen, Stuart. You really ought to do this because it’s your duty'.”Rose says he regretted accepting the role almost immediately when it became clear he had little influence over the way the campaign was run.“I regret it for lots of reasons. I regret having been on the losing side, I regret not having been aggressive enough, if that’s the right word, about what I thought we should do,” Rose told ITV News.“Almost from day one, I had absolutely no impact or no say about how things were handled. I mean, effectively, you know, it was ‘here’s your speech, this is what you’ve got to say’. I should have been stronger”.

While Vote Leave chose to focus much of their campaigning on immigration, Remain decided to highlight the economic risks of leaving the EU. Rose says, as the campaign progressed, it became clear to him that this was an error.

Stuart Rose with other board members at the launch of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign October 2015.

“I do remember that, you know, people saying that we’ve really got to hit people on the financials. The argument has got to be about finances and ‘it’s the economy, stupid,’ going back to the Bill Clinton days or whatever it was. And I think that was a big mistake”.“It was quite clear that immigration was a big issue. It was quite clear that getting your kids into school was a big issue. It was quite clear that getting a house and into housing was a big issue. It was quite clear that access to the NHS was a big issue. And I don’t think people really took it seriously about ‘Oh, well. You are going to be worse off’”.

On 23 May 2016, a month before the referendum, the Remain campaign unveiled the Treasury’s analysis of what would happen to the UK economy in the two years after a Leave victory. It was grim.There were two scenarios. Both forecast that the economy would shrink, the value of the pound would fall, inflation would rise, unemployment would rise, real wages would be hit, so too would house prices and, as a result, government borrowing would rise.Even the more optimistic “shock” scenario - which envisaged a negotiated bilateral agreement with the EU - calculated that as many as 520,000 people would lose their jobs.

"It was quite clear immigration was a big issue... access to the NHS was a big issue... you weren't going to frighten them with £200 a year worse off" - Stuart Rose on what the Remain campaign got wrong

David Cameron and George Osborne held a press conference at B&Q headquarters. They warned Brexit would trigger a “DIY recession”. Cameron described a Leave vote as “the self-destruct option” for the UK.In the event, after the UK voted to leave the EU, the value of the pound did fall sharply and the cost of living did rise for a period, but the rest of the Treasury’s “short-term” forecast proved very wide of the mark. There was no recession.At the time, Nigel Lawson accused the Remain campaign of attempting to “scare” voters. Leave campaigners dismissed the Economic forecasts as “Project Fear” - a strategy designed to terrify voters into sticking with the status quo.Stuart Rose says he “didn’t feel very comfortable” with the way the Treasury forecasts were presented to voters. “I wouldn’t have done it that way but I had absolutely no control or input about what was being said,” he told Tonight. “It was a bit cack-handed”.

Former Chancellor George Osborne and then PM David Cameron delivering a speech on the economic impact of Brexit at B&Q headquarters. Credit: PA

Rose thinks there “must have been” a deliberate attempt to exaggerate the economic risks of Brexit but insists he has no idea who within the campaign was calling the shots. He says he didn’t had any contact with David Cameron or George Osborne before the event, or for much of the campaign.“I said to those people I was having regular contact with that the economic gloom may happen but it wasn’t going to happen immediately. It wasn’t going to be Armageddon the day we came out. Everyone wasn’t going to suddenly be out of work… It was going to be over time. We [won’t] know now for another 10, 15, 20 years what the effect on the UK economy is going to be.”“It was [Project Fear],” Rose says. “And it didn’t work.”

Rose says he raised concerns about the campaign strategy at board level and that others on the board of Britain Stronger in Europe “weren’t happy” with the economic messaging but he declined to say who.Other board members included: Sir Danny Alexander, Sir Brendan Barber, Baroness Brady, Damian Green, Caroline Lucas, Lord Mandelson, Trevor Philips, Richard Reed, Roland Rudd and June Sarpong.“You had this strange mix of people. You had very good people, people on the board, who all were very thoughtful but they all had slightly different agendas,” Rose says. As a result, he says the decision-making process was “chaotic”.

Liz Truss with George Osborne during a speech in April 2016 where they warned that the UK would be permanently poorer outside the EU. Credit: PA

“As a business person, I was used to clear lines of responsibility. I think I was very naïve. I was out of my depth completely. I mean, everything was going on around me and it was like being in a tumble-dryer.”Stuart Rose was head of Britain Stronger in Europe until the polling day on 23 June but he says he was “withdrawn from the front line” in March after being “slightly off message once or twice".“I remember saying [at a Treasury select committee hearing on 2 March 2016] that if you take out immigration that wages might go up. Well, it clearly wasn’t the message that I was supposed to be giving but economically it’s a fact.”

"Covid has been a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful piece of camouflage” - Stuart Rose says the full impact of Brexit has been disguised by the huge disruption of the pandemic

Rose said he would have pursued a different campaign strategy. “I think the message should have been a softer one. I think it should have been ‘hold on a second, let’s look at history, let’s look at the wonderful benefits we get'.”But he believes that if there was a re-run of the referendum today that Vote Leave would still win.“You were fighting a campaign which was patently mendacious. I mean there were big porky pie lies,” Rose insists.“We never were giving £350 million a week to the European [Union]…That [was] a massive lie. There was lots of other innuendo, wasn’t there? About people arriving from Turkey. That was just a lie, a scare story. That was Project Fear but it was Project Fear that pressed the right button for people to vote.”

"Big porky pie lies" - Stuart Rose says the Brexit vote was a proxy for "lets get rid of Johnny Foreigner"

Brexit has not triggered economic meltdown but Stuart Rose sees plenty of signs of disruption.“I can point to the fact that you can’t get goods between here and Northern Ireland. I can’t go into Tesco or Marks and Spencer or Sainsbury's in Belfast today and buy the same range of good that I used to be able to buy…”“You can see that the fishermen aren’t able to sell all their fish abroad. You can see many small traders are having a hell of a job trying to get the paperwork sorted out…”“We already know there are job shortages. We’ve already had to come up with a scheme for visas…”“And, dare I say it, as you arrive in Europe for your holiday, if you’re ever allowed to go on holiday ever again, you will be divided [at passport control] into ‘Europeans this way and Britishers there, please!’”Rose points out that the future of the UK’s financial services sector - which wasn’t included in the government’s trade deal with the EU - looks precarious.“I’m told there are conversations going on and things may get better but it’s a bit like the situation in Northern Ireland,” he says. “It’s work in progress and it isn’t resolved and until it’s resolved it isn’t good”.“There’s no doubt about it in my view, and I think that most people would agree with this, that the rate of growth of the UK economy going forward will be less great than it would have been had we had the status quo been maintained.”Rose says the economic impact of Brexit has been significant but almost entirely obscured by the upheaval caused by the coronavirus pandemic.“Covid has been a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful piece of camouflage,” he says. “[The pandemic] has screwed everything up so much that we don’t know what normality looks like any more. We will be so grateful, probably, to get back to a Brexit Europe after Covid that it’ll look all wonderful”.Although Rose doesn’t see things that way. “Life has just become a little more bureaucratic and complicated,” Rose says. “It’s not the end of the world, nobody’s going to die, it’s just not as much fun and it’s not as easy. And what have we got for it? Sovereignty. WelI, I’m not quite sure yet what sovereignty means.”

"It was Project Fear" - Secretary of State for International Trade Liz Truss who campaigned for Remain says the UK has "seen a lot of positive benefits from being able to do things differently”

We put Lord Rose’s suggestion that the Remain campaign exaggerated the economic risks of Brexit to Liz Truss.Truss is Secretary of State for International Trade and is responsible for negotiating the new trade deals that Boris Johnson’s government is hoping to secure with Australia, China and the United States.But in 2016 she campaigned for Remain. On April 18 2016, Truss and George Osborne presented the Treasury’s long-term analysis of the economic impact of Brexit to voters. It concluded that the UK would be worse off to the tune of £4,300 per household if the UK left the EU and that GDP would be 6.2% lower 15 years after Brexit.“It was Project Fear,” Truss told us. “But this is past history. People made the decision. We are a sovereign nation, we left the EU. We haven’t seen the Armageddon scenario - in fact we’ve seen a lot of positive benefits from being able to do things differently.”Both the Bank of England and the Office for Budget Responsibility - the government’s official forecaster - calculate that the UK economy will grow more slowly than had it remained in the EU.The Bank of England estimates the long run hit to GDP of Brexit will be 3.5%, the OBR estimates it will be 4%.

Britain after Brexit: Winners & Losers – Tonight will be broadcast on Thursday, June 10 at 7.30pm on ITV and is available after broadcast on the ITV Hub.