Last week I moderated a panel on Brexit. On the stage were Sir Graham Watson, a twenty year veteran of the European Parliament, the Hon. Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, a Eurosceptic Conservative backbencher, and Tim Hames, Director General of the BVCA. The discussion was well received (with three silk purses on the panel, a sow’s ear was unlikely) and civil (the British still have some standards) but it left me with some food for thought.

The UK/EU relationship will be decided by this question. My learned colleague Nicholas Whyte recently wrote about lessons from previous referenda that could be applied to this one but I wonder if, on the basis of the panel discussion I oversaw, there are additional issues to consider:

Irresistible forces meeting immovable objects - UK voters will be confronted by two groups with known, respected, trusted spokespeople and supporters. They will throw contrary facts and truths at one another with complete certitude. Humour, rhetoric, oratory, advertising, social media, etc. will all be used by people who are genuinely good at what they do. It’ll be a spectacle, but one that will leave most people simply unsure of who to believe.

Defaulting to the status quo and living with the consequences of fear - Confronted with irreconcilable truths I wonder if undecided people will default to voting for “the devil you know”, especially if a pro-EU “Project Fear” casts a shadow over jobs, economic growth, security, etc. Such an approach might win the vote but lose the argument. If that sounds counter-intuitive, the Scots seem more broadly pro-independence than ever, despite recently voting against it in a referendum. In the medium term, a negative campaign and a reluctant “Remain” result could see Euroscepticism become the majority position of the British (or at least of the English). And those who sidestep this risk by saying this referendum is a “once in a generation” event must consider how the same was said in Scotland, where now people expect a second referendum considerably sooner than 2040.

Being unable to give the answers that would make a difference - If either side were truly sure of the future, they’d have a clear advantage. On the one hand, if we stay will it just be more of the same? Will this current phase of better regulation in Brussels prove only a brief summer before the glacier of directives and regulations grinds forward again? On the other hand, what kind of future does “Leave” offer? What chance will the UK have to negotiate a genuinely positive relationship with an EU it has just quit, an EU which will be minus the free trade and liberalism which the UK brought to it, an EU which will want to make very clear to wobbling Member States that exit is a bad idea? Instead of getting solid answers to these questions, I fear we will see different ones being posed by each side because of the natural responses most people will give them: Do you believe in national sovereignty? Do you want to be part of a country called Europe? Do you want to lose economic growth? Do you want to be isolated and ignored on the world stage? And once again, people will be none the wiser as to what they should look to when making up their minds on this critical question.

Politics is, of course, the art of the possible and we have no real alternative to gauging what the people of the UK want other than to ask them. Whichever way the decision goes, however, it is unlikely to be an elegant or edifying spectacle. Hold onto your hats, and dial down your expectations.

Theo Moore

Theo Moore is deputy managing director of APCO Worldwide's Brussels office and head of APCO's financial practice in Europe. Read More