It was not where the People’s Vote campaign wanted to be on the eve of a crucial week in parliament that could determine the fate ofBrexitand 10 days after hundreds of thousands took to the streets to demand a second referendum.
Two of its senior executives – James McGrory and Tom Baldwin – had been fired,dozens of staff staged a walkout from their Millbank offices, and work had to be carried on first in the Tate Britain cafe, then later in a pub near the Thames.
McGrory and Baldwin, the campaigns and communications director respectively, are not going away without a battle, and staff are pushing for them to be reinstated. But to get their positions back they have to go head-to-head with Roland Rudd, the powerful City PR guru who effectively controls the campaign through the Open Britain organization.
Rudd, a multimillionaire businessman and the brother of the Conservative former cabinet minister Amber Rudd, is one of the godfathers of the 2016 remain campaign, having co-founded the Britain Stronger in Europe group that turned into the official coordinating body. He later went on to chair its successor organization, Open Britain, which now effectively controls the movement for a People’s Vote.
People’s Vote is an umbrella alliance, with five groups supporting its aim of a second referendum. But Open Britain is by far the biggest, employing almost all the staff, owning most of the data on supporters, renting the offices and owning the equipment. Rudd, its chairman, also says he is chair of People’s Vote, although that is disputed by his opponents.
Sources on both sides of the hostilities say rows have been raging for months, but there is little agreement about whether the root cause of the argument is a power struggle over resources or more of an ideological division about the future of the second referendum movement.
One person familiar with all the parties said the fallout began when Rudd began to install his allies on the board, with Peter Mandelson and others trying to stop him taking control. In his next step in the battle, Rudd is expected to make moves to remove Lord Mandelson and his allies – two former remain campaign executives, Will Straw and Joe Carberry – from the board of Open Britain.
Anger among senior staff also boiled over when another friend of Rudd, Hugo Dixon, was made deputy chair of the People’s Vote campaign, and began organizing a semi-rival March for Change that they felt cut across some of the organization’s aims . *****
One senior figure still involved in the campaign, who knows all parties, said his belief was that “Roland is a frustrated politician”. “He’s very pleased with his success in business. But it’s never been enough. He’s desperate to be acknowledged publicly. It’s a combination of pique,amour propreand a desperation for publicity, ”He said.
But other staffers say it is more of a battle over fundamental ideology, with wrangling about the soul of a future in campaign. They place Rudd on the side of “starry-eyed remainiacs”, saying he wants to form an alliance with other pro-EU groups and possibly even help bring about a realignment of centrist politics around the Lib Dems.
On the other side, the current executive team have been focused on winning the practical arguments for a second referendum in the country and trying to get more soft Tories and Labor figures on board in parliament.
But allies of Rudd say this characterization is rubbish and a “smokescreen” for explaining away problems with the current structure. They also point to previous efforts by Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, the former communications director to Tony Blair, to get rid of Rudd, saying that had pushed him into this course of action. A rival plan pushed by the Mandelson group would have put Michael Heseltine, Dominic Grieve and Margaret Beckett in senior roles.
In an email to staff, Rudd referred to a need to make the campaign “more professional and more in touch”. While thanking McGrory and Baldwin, he said: “As you will all understand, the ongoing internal issues in the campaign have been allowed to carry on for too long. We now need a much clearer structure as we move forward. ”He said the appointment of Patrick Heneghan to replace them would“ take the organization to the next level ”.
Supporters of McGrory, a former spinner for Nick Clegg and the remain campaign, and Baldwin, a former director of media for Ed Miliband, are not sure where the battle will go next. They are planning to turn up at the office on Tuesday, where some staff are expected to argue for the sacked pair to get their jobs back.
However, Rudd effectively has power over Open Britain, with majority support on the board, and control over it via a new company called Baybridge. Those familiar with his thinking say the ultimate aim is for Open Britain to merge with other pro-EU groups such as Best for Britain and the European Movement to form a more structured campaign to remain in the EU.
MPs involved in the People’s Vote campaign are baffled by the developments. It was originally launched in spring 2018 by a cross-party lineup of MPs who took to the stage at the Electric Ballroom in Camden, north London , including then Conservative Anna Soubry, Chuka Umunna, then with Labor, the Greens’Caroline Lucasand Liberal Democrat Layla Moran.
One prominent MP who supports the People’s Vote said they were “simply sad” at the wrangling, but MPs would be focusing on building support in parliament for a second referendum. “We don’t actually need People’s Vote for now, when we are just trying to get parliament and the parties to back a second referendum,” he said. “But we will need the data when there’s an actual remain campaign to be fought. They’d better get their act together by then. ”