First used in the Scottish independence referendum, the notorious phrase has become a hallmark of pro-Leave political strategy. But how has it come this far and what does it actually mean?
Whatever you think of the phrase ‘Project Fear’, it’s become a new and important phrase in the increasingly fragmented marketplace of clichés and phrases that have come to dominate British politics in recent years. Although Brexiteers have wrestled ownership of the phrase for the time being, it hasn’t always been this way.
‘Project Fear’ originally had quite disparate and confusing origins. In June 2013, The Sunday Herald reported that Rob Shorthouse, the Director of Communications for the Better Together campaign during the 2014 Scottish Independence Referendum, had first mentioned the phrase at the Scottish Conservative conference of that same year. Shorthouse and other members of Better Together had reportedly mentioned it ironically amongst themselves as a means of satirising Yes Scotland’s rather cavalier attitude to economic forecasts of a post-independence Scotland. However, in keeping with other famous blunders, it became one of the great sadomasochistic acts in government-led referendum campaigns. Better Together allowed the ‘Yes’ campaign to reclaim the narrative of the phrase as a means of rubbishing their economic warnings. In the first of the televised debates in 2014, Alex Salmond asked Alastair Darling: ‘Why does the ‘No’ campaign call itself Project Fear?’ Darling had to reply: ‘It doesn’t.’
A month before the EU referendum in 2016, in an interview with BuzzFeed News, Shorthouse described himself as ‘the proud owner of one of the most celebrated phrases in modern British political history’. I wonder whether, almost three years after the EU referendum, he’d still identify either ‘proud’ or ‘celebrated’ as the operative word.
A Google search of ‘Project Fear’ offers up a confused melee of articles relating to the notorious phrase. In response to Philip Hammond refusing to rule out his own resignation as a result of a no-deal Brexit, Jacob Rees-Mogg used an LBC appearance to criticise the Chancellor of ‘ramping up his view of Project Fear’. This, surely, can’t be the same Jacob Rees-Mogg who was so afraid of civil rights legislation to legalise gay marriage that he accused David Cameron of ‘rubbing it in’ on the issue? When Boris Johnson accused the Remain campaign of being ‘the agents of Project Fear’ in 2016, did he do so after mentioning his persistently false claims of Turkish accession to the European Union? Was it Michael Gove, the poster boy of the Vote Leave campaign, who stood in front of posters claiming that more than 80m Turkish immigrants and a border with Syria and Iraq would lie ahead should Britain stay in the European Union.
Even Jeremy Corbyn used the term after Chris Grayling’s infamous attempts to create a traffic jam at Manston Airfield were, understandably, interpreted as a political gaff of epic proportions as the government tries to convince Parliament to vote through Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Speaking in the House of Commons on 7th January, the Labour leader said ‘The Prime Minister suggested a breakthrough had been secured last week and the issue, Mr Speaker, is that she’s not here because she’s busy promoting project fear, it’s all hot air.’
The essence of the term ‘Project Fear’ is inherently confused. There, surely, can be no definition for it in the context of British politics. It can be used in so many different ways that it should not be used at all. From a Brexiteer perspective, George Osborne’s proposed emergency budget in the wake of the 2016 result was of course a scare tactic. Nevertheless, we should not accept the use of ‘project fear’ as a term by Eurosceptics who have consistently made unfounded and misleading threats surrounding ‘benefit tourism’ from the A8 countries. A study by UCL in 2009 found that A8 immigrants- those from the eight countries who acceded to the EU in 2004- were around 60% less likely than natives to receive state benefits, tax credits or social housing. Yet those who dogmatically waved the Eurosceptic flag either in Parliament or outside of it were able to capitalise on the public’s fear surrounding European benefit claimants.
One could argue from any of the four quadrants of the political compass as to who espouses ‘Project Fear’ the most. The fact of the matter is that Rob Shorthouse’s ‘celebrated phrase’ should never have been conceived, let alone been allowed into the public domain. It’s a characteristic of the ugly cesspit that Britain’s political discourse has become. With ‘project fear’ has come ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and ‘smear campaigns’. It is reactionary and it does not listen to evidence. The stand-up comedian Stewart Lee once described an interview between Jeremy Paxman and Russell Brand as ‘like watching a monkey throw his own excrement at a foghorn’. Well, perhaps now we have a clear definition for ‘Project Fear’ and everything that the term has come to symbolise.