It’s been clear for some time the Remain campaign was not going to step back from Project Fear — now it seems the relentless escalation of scaremongering has reached its inevitable conclusion.
The Chancellor has threatened to breach large sections of last year’s Conservative manifesto, warning a vote to leave the EU would trigger an emergency budget that would raise income and inheritance taxes, and cut spending in the NHS.
George Osborne calls it an honest appraisal of the risks of withdrawal — but to many it looks like a heavy-handed move to force wavering voters to do as they’re told.
Wherever you stand on the issue of EU membership, it has the appearance of a terrible political mis-judgement.
There’s scarcely a group that hasn’t been threatened with the terrible financial consequences that could follow a vote to leave the EU. At the weekend, David Cameron warned pensioners guaranteed increases in their income would be in peril, and the Prime Minister will have sanctioned this latest, more dramatic threat.
This strategy, to crank up the fear in the days leading up to the referendum, may well work, scaring enough voters into thinking it’s not worth the risk. But that doesn’t mean the Chancellor will get away with it.
As a rule, people don’t like being pushed around. In a campaign where Leave supporters say they’ve had enough of Brussels diktats, this “vote Remain or else” plan could push more waverers towards the Leave camp.
Even if that doesn’t happen, there’ll inevitably be a political cost for the Chancellor and the Prime Minister. Already 57 Tory MPs have said they’d vote down any budget that raised taxes and cut NHS spending - more than enough to wipe out the party’s majority.
Even if that is pre-referendum bluster, many backbenchers will simply never forgive Mr Osborne and Mr Cameron for the way they’ve handled this campaign. They’ll make the Prime Minister’s life unbearable, putting endless votes on a knife-edge, trying to hasten his departure.
Meanwhile, the Chancellor’s own leadership ambitions have taken a knock. He’s been front and centre in Project Fear, alienating the same group of Tory MPs who are now set against the Prime Minister. At some stage, he’ll be trying to win their support. By then, he may have run out of threats.