LONDON (Reuters) - Declaring “I‘m a eurosceptic” may not be an obvious way to persuade Britons to stay in the European Union but as the leader of the ‘In’ campaign businessman Stuart Rose believes it is this pragmatism that will help him win the day.
Tasked with combating the sound and fury of the ‘out’ campaign, Rose is putting his faith in the quiet common sense of the British people - statistics over sentiment, economics over emotion.
He says his ability to connect with ordinary people, developed during his more than 40 years at the top of British retail, should go some way towards keeping Britain in the bloc in a referendum expected in June.
Much is at stake for Britain, the world’s fifth largest economy, and the European project itself.
But Rose’s approach comes with risks and has drawn parallels with the 2014 campaign to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom, which initially struggled to counter the passion of those wanting independence before clinching a last minute victory.
It is also a rather staid message for someone as exuberant as the 66-year-old Rose, who speaks so quickly he appears to be in a perpetual rush.
“At the end of the day I think heads will rule over hearts,” he told Reuters.
“There is more chance of me being hit by a meteorite than there is of us getting a better deal than the one we’ve already got,” he said, rejecting the vision of those who believe a British exit, or Brexit, would set Britain free.
Prime Minister David Cameron has called on big business to support his bid to keep Britain in a reformed EU, and Rose is one of many to throw their weight behind the prime minister.
But where the voice of business helped keep Britain in the bloc last time it held an EU referendum in 1975, Rose could be held partly responsible if it votes to leave this time.
That would leave a scar on the reputation of one of Britain’s leading retailers who has run some of the biggest names on the high street - most famously the much-loved institution Marks & Spencer between 2004 and 2010.
Rose, who is not being paid for the campaign role, was credited with successfully defending M&S from a takeover bid in 2004 by tycoon Philip Green, a battle so heated that the two men wrestled on a London street.
An immaculately dressed showman who used to wheel out racks of clothes during shareholder meetings and wow an adoring mostly mature female audience with his salesman patter, Rose puts his success down to an ability to read the mood of the nation.
He says the Britons he sold underwear to are more savvy than the press or politicians realise, boosting his confidence that they will stick with what they know and not vote for some promised-land depicted by the ‘out’ campaign.
Rose, now chairman of online grocer Ocado, says as a natural eurosceptic he is best placed to argue that, on balance, it is better to stay in. Sugar-coating the message, he says, would not wash with a public conditioned by a largely eurosceptic media.
“I’ve traded with Europe all my life,” he said.
“If I was to say ‘it’s all bloody wonderful, they’re all lovely, they all love us, there’s no bureaucracy, there’s no gerrymandering ... that would be complete rubbish. It has a strange DNA and it works.”
But the strategy is not without risk. Andrew Hawkins, founder of polling firm Comres, said while the EU was a “really hard positive sell”, the argument that Britain could not cut it alone was too negative.
Rose, Hawkins said, needs to strike a positive note against a motivated, if split, ‘leave’ campaign that says Britain needs to break free from the shackles of a German-run superstate.
“Voters respond to a sunny optimistic future,” he said.
A London-based multi-millionaire known for sometimes speaking before he thinks may not be the ideal figure to take on an opposition casting the EU as the voice of a global elite.
Rose’s failure to remember the name of his own campaign on television in January did not help. Former colleagues and fellow CEOs praise Rose’s enthusiasm and ability to mobilise crowds. They also say he is a man who enjoys the spotlight.
“There’ll be a bit of Stuart Rose who needs to be in the limelight in this,” said one, asking not to be named.
One of the hardest challenges Rose will face is in finding an answer to the charge that EU membership leads to unlimited immigration, driving down wages for workers and straining the fabric of British life.
While Rose, whose mother and father were both immigrants, acknowledges that high levels of immigration put a strain on public services, he says migrant labour is needed to work in the country’s factories, fields and restaurants.
For every difficult question, Rose and the In campaign have an inbuilt advantage over their rivals. If Cameron agrees new terms of membership, he will lead the case for Britain to stay.
And if Rose, who prefers to spend weekends at a cottage in Suffolk, eastern England than at a showy second home on the continent, needs further backup, he can call on his friends from boardrooms across the country.
While the deep recession damaged the standing of many executives in the eyes of ordinary Britons, the experience from Scotland showed that warnings from CEOs can make an impact.
Firms from GlaxoSmithKline to BP and Standard Life have warned Britons of the consequences should they vote to leave the EU. And if Scotland is to be repeated, the corporate banging of the drum is likely to grow louder as polling day approaches.
“Who are you going to believe? Are you going to believe (eurosceptic) Nigel Farage or are you going to believe a phalanx of FTSE 100 chief executives and foreign investors saying we’re going to pull out?,” Hawkins said.
One boss Rose is unlikely to call on however is his old friend Green. When asked what lessons he can bring from business Rose lights up as he recalls the heady days of 2004 when he graced the front pages of national newspapers detailing every twist and turn of the multi-billion pound M&S bid saga.
”Be passionate. Tell people the truth, don’t bullshit them. Make them understand what really matters,“ he said. ”(With M&S) it was close all the way through and common sense prevailed.
“I think we’ll win (again), I couldn’t get up in the morning otherwise.”
Writing by Kate Holton, Editing by Elizabeth Piper and Janet McBride