Project Fear (British politics)

The term "Project Fear" has been used in British politics, notably before, during and after the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership by those campaigning to leave the European Union. It denotes the alleged scaremongering and pessimism employed by those in favour of remaining in the EU.[1] It was first used by the Scottish National Party (SNP) and supporters of Scottish independence who opposed the "Better Together" campaign in 2014 during the Scottish independence referendum that year, and was later used by 'leave' supporters in the build up to the "Britain Stronger In Europe" campaign during the EU membership referendum campaign.[2]

2014 Scottish Independence referendum

On 23 June 2013, in an article marking the campaign's first anniversary, the Sunday Herald claimed that "Privately, some inside Better Together even refer to the organization as Project Fear".[3] The name "Project Fear" subsequently appeared in other news outlets[4][5] and was co-opted by pro-independence campaigners.[6] The following line of the Sunday Herald's article said that "[Blair] McDougall is unrepentant about the tactics", but on the following day's edition of Scotland Tonight McDougall denied ever hearing anyone use the term "Project Fear".[7]

2016 EU Membership referendum

The former Mayor of London and key figurehead of the Leave campaign Boris Johnson argued that the pro-EU campaign in the 2016 EU referendum campaign was guilty of scaremongering, saying that "the agents of Project Fear" were trying to "spook" the British public into voting against British withdrawal from the EU, adding that "I am ever more convinced that the real risk is to sit back and do nothing, to remain inertly and complacently in an unreformed EU that is hell-bent on a federal project over which we have no control."[8] The phrase was quickly picked up by the British media,[9] who in September 2016 reported that ignoring the scaremongering had rewarded those with the insight to ignore the pessimism perpetuated by 'Project Fear' proponents after the FTSE250 broke all records in the months following the referendum to leave the EU.[10]

The phrase was also used by those who were in favour of Britain remaining within the European Union,[11] Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said that "The EU referendum is about our future relationship with Europe, not who is the next leader of the Tory Party ... the Labour leadership will not go anywhere near the Tories' 'project fear' campaign on both sides of the debate. But instead we will continue to set out the positive case to 'Remain and Reform' the EU to create 'Another Europe' ... Another Europe is not just possible but urgently and vitally needed, which is why we must reject the offer of a Tory Brexit.".[12]

However, others have opposed the label. Alistair Darling says that "Project Fear? In fact, it is a reality check. The kind anyone would take before making such an enormous decision in their lives. So when Iain Duncan Smith claimed if we stay in the EU terrorists would find it easier to get into the UK, we are right to call him out."[8][13] David Cameron rejected any allegations of fear-mongering, saying that "The only project I'm interested in is Project Fact. Project Fact is about saying: 'Stay in and you know what you'll get.'"[14]


  1. Eaton, George (15 June 2016). ""Project Fear" is back - and it's still Remain's best hope". New Statesman. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  2. Deacon, Michael (25 January 2016). "The EU referendum: Project Fear is already under way". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  3. Gordon, Tom (23 June 2013). "One year on: will Better Together change their tactics?". Herald Scotland. Retrieved 27 June 2013.
  4. "Scottish independence: Duggy the dog helps in 'Project Fear' battle". BBC News. 25 June 2013. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  5. Cochrane, Alan (30 June 2013). "Prophecies of doom beginning to look like overkill". The Telegraph. London. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  6. Dempsie, Jennifer (30 June 2013). "Jennifer Dempsie: Hope must replace Fear in vote". The Scotsman. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  7. "Scotland Tonight". STV. 24 June 2013. Retrieved 5 August 2013.
  8. 1 2 Stone, Jon (29 February 2016). "The campaign to stay in the EU is 'Project Fear', says Boris Johnson". The Independent. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  9. Spence, Alex (26 February 2016). "David Cameron unleashes 'project fear'". Politico. London, UK. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  10. Ralph, Alex (2 September 2016). "Rally rewards bravery in the face of Project Fear". The Times. Retrieved 2 October 2016.
  11. Mason, Rowena (31 May 2016). "John McDonnell: sharing EU platform with Tories discredits Labour". The Guardian. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  12. Cowburn, Ashley (31 May 2016). "Half of Labour voters have no idea what their position is on the EU referendum". The Independent. Retrieved 31 May 2016.
  13. Darling, Alistair (28 February 2016). "There's a reason why it's called Project Fear, by Alistair Darling". Mail on Sunday. Daily Mail and General Trust. Retrieved 31 May 2016 via Mail Online.
  14. Stewart, Heather; Asthana, Anushka (29 February 2016). "David Cameron says his EU campaign is Project Fact, not Project Fear". The Guardian. Guardian Media Group.
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