Cameron’s first EU referendum battle: shutting up his own MPs

Keeping the Tories together after an EU referendum was once seen as a ‘good’ problem for the party. Not any more...

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

20 February 2016

9:00 AM

On the day that David Cameron delivered his Bloomberg speech, the 2013 address in which he committed himself to a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, I asked a close ally of his how he would avoid splitting the Tory party over the issue, given that even quiet ‘outers’ might feel obliged to vote to leave. The ally paused before replying: ‘That would be a good problem to have, as it would mean we had won the election.’

That ‘good problem’ is now here. The Tory leadership is currently involved in a no-holds-barred campaign to limit the number of MPs who speak for ‘out’. An extraordinary amount of emotional energy is being spent to stop Justice Secretary Michael Gove backing ‘out’. He was one of the intellectual driving forces behind Cameron and Osborne’s Tory modernisation project and if he votes to leave it would be a personal blow to both men. It would also make clear that ‘out’ isn’t just the preserve of those who enjoy wearing Union Jack jackets.

But even those lower down the payroll are being treated to extensive lobbying. All week they’ve had text messages from Osborne urging them to call him, though this flurry of personal attention was undermined by the fact that many MPs don’t have his number and had no idea who was texting.

No one can accuse Downing Street of complacency in this campaign. Cameron is acutely aware that this is a career-defining moment. How history will judge him depends on two things. First, whether he wins, and secondly, whether he can put the Tory party back together again afterwards. But Cameron is not interested in any clever-clever approach to the second question. He has told his closest colleagues that he wants as many Tories backing ‘in’ as possible, even if that requires putting pressure on recalcitrant colleagues. He is also willing to fight in a way that many Tories will dislike; he was happy to defend the distinctly dubious claim that Brexit would see ‘The Jungle’ moving from Calais to Folkestone, for example.

The campaign has not begun in the way that Downing Street would have liked. It was expecting the press to be critical of the deal, but didn’t realise quite how hostile and prolonged the barrage would be. Cameron himself is tired and rather irritable, according to a No. 10 insider, and feels that he hasn’t been given the credit he deserves for striking what he, oddly, considers a very good deal. Part of his problem is that what he has conducted isn’t so much a renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership as a reordering of it. There was an assumption on the part of many voters that the renegotiation would deal with whatever irked them about the EU. In truth, though, Cameron and Osborne were trying to answer a different essay question. They wanted to negotiate a new place for Britain inside the EU but outside the single currency, to show that there was a third way between leaving and full integration.

This is why Osborne has personally taken charge of the negotiations over the relationship between nations in and out of the euro. In private, he has long been clear that this — not the welfare stuff — is for him the most important part of the renegotiation.

The other problem for Cameron and Osborne was that the British renegotiation ended up being a stand-alone affair. When the Bloomberg speech was delivered, the assumption was that there would be a new EU treaty before 2017 to formalise the further integration of the eurozone. They calculated that this would increase Britain’s negotiating leverage. But it never happened, and this has weakened Cameron’s hand. It means that he can’t now promise that the changes he negotiated will be immediately enshrined in a treaty. It has also resulted in this being a specifically British package, with little mention of broader changes to how the EU works.

It is a sign of his growing anxiety that Cameron has taken to arguing publicly that this referendum won’t be the end of his attempts to reform the EU. In his speech in Hamburg last week, he declared: ‘Even if we secure the changes I am arguing for, the job will not be done. There will be many things that would remain to be reformed.’ Privately, those close to Cameron are telling waverers that Britain will have another chance to secure changes when negotiations begin on a new EU treaty after the French and German elections in 2017.

Of course, much depends on the rival campaign. If those agitating to leave are represented by Nigel Farage, bombastic Ukip donor Arron Banks and Union Jack-jacketed MP Philip Hollobone then Cameron will have a very easy time portraying ‘out’ as the cause of cranks and gadflies. Indeed, No. 10 can barely disguise its excitement at the prospect of this group of oddballs getting the official campaign designation. However, an ‘out’ team led by Michael Gove, Priti Patel and James Dyson would be a very different matter. This would show that leaving the EU isn’t about returning to the past, but finding ways to maximise Britain’s future prospects. I understand a group of Eurosceptic junior ministers has agreed to meet early next week. These ministers, many of whom were members of the Fresh Start group which set out a bold plan for the renegotiation, hope to form a caucus of ‘sensibles for out’.

If, as seems almost certain, Cameron secures a deal at this week’s EU summit, the Cabinet will meet on Friday. I understand that no dissenting minister will be allowed to set out their opposition from Downing Street as they leave the meeting. No. 10 wants, for obvious reasons, to reserve the trappings of office for their side of the argument.

Cameron is a formidable politician and he will speak with the weight of his office behind him. But selling this deal as a radical change to Britain’s terms of EU membership might not be possible, even for him. Instead, he is going to have to fall back on the broader arguments for EU membership, which will further expose the Tory split on the issue. The ‘good problem’ could become a pretty bad problem very soon.

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  • The Laughing Cavalier

    There has been no meaningful negotiation, Cameron has asked for very little while giving the game away by imploring the other side to help him stop a Brexit. He has achieved very little in return. Thin gruel indeed.

  • I fear that the UK will likely stay in the EUSSR. The farce that is mob rule, ahem British Democracy, will force the UK to board the EUTitanic. Genius.

    Well, at least it makes it easy to prepare ourselves to invest in anticipation of an economic catastrophe: just do what you wish the average Greek did: keep your money out of banks, invest in precious metal, maybe consider shorting the market even, keep assets in foreign jurisdictions if you can (beyond the reach of HMRC) et al.

    Jim Rickards and Peter Schiff have some good investment strategies in their respective books:
    The Death of Money, and The Real Crash.

    • St Louis

      Correction: we are already on board the EUTitanic. This is about whether we are chained up in the hold.

    • Andrew Cole

      I simply want to be able to get a basic job. Obviously too much to ask in this region where Brits don’t get a look in for NWM jobs. Hopefully once the ‘I’m alright Jacks’ in the country have voted us to remain the government might invest in retraining for those of us that are not 18-24 and have found it impossible to get back into work.

      I like you am not expecting this country to vote out. There are far too many who do not believe that many of us have suffered and there are far too much who love their continental expresso lifestyle.

  • Marvin

    If the “Remain” side win, it will prove that Britain has become a cowardly nation governed by unintellectual self serving career politicians with no morals or scruples regarding the good of their country, and are willing serves to the asinine fools of Europe.

    • Andrew Cole

      It will be a victory for the media brainwashers because there are huge swathes of people who truly believe that Brits have not lost their jobs, had their wages supressed or that migration has not had an effect on housing costs.

  • FrankS2

    I suppose it’s natural for a political journalist to focus on the political ebbs and flows of the referendum. But I wonder how many of the people who will decide the issue – that is, us, the voters – actually care about which way politicians will jump. The undecideds look like careerist opportunists. Unlike general elections, the referendum seems to be free from the effect of party loyalties.
    And though the fate of the Tory party might make for interesting political speculation, I doubt it will play much part in how people vote.

    • Andrew Cole

      I have no problem with the cabinet or any other politician waiting until Cameron announces his deal. What I will have a problem with is any of them who change their mind from what they were voted in on and that is either way.

  • global city

    The snobbery, assumptions and prejudices of the ‘commenteriat’ in the Westminster bubble is quite bewildering.

  • Frank

    “formidable politician”- really, please do explain why you think this to be so. I suspect that a very large percentage of the British population think that he is deeply shallow individual who is debasing his office by trying to rig an election – absurdly, so that Britain remains in a crumbling corrupt institution.
    As for little Osborne texting dubious messages to MPs, that had me laughing.
    I think we have to hope and pray that we don’t stumble into war with this pair at the controls.

  • Andrew Cole

    I see the Spectator has as I predicted jumped upon the opportunity to use the Union blazer as the photo on all articles Brexit. I knew they would. We aren’t all nutters yet they will make us look like we are.

  • RonForrest

    Voters are not so stupid that they cannot see that what has been going on in Brussels is a farce. The discussions have been about relative trivia and will not give us back what we want, namely, our sovereignty. We want control of our own borders – not just the legal right to stop certain benefit payments to newly arrived immigrants.

  • Jacobi

    So, Cameron has his deal. It took him four shirts I’m told!
    Good. We will get our in-vote in the referendum. The nats up here whom as a native up here, I loath, and that waste of space Corbyn, I think, can never remember his name, will ensure that.
    Bad. Four bloody months of endless repetitive, inane “reporting” in the press and on the Telly!

  • tom kincade

    If we leave the EU Scotland will leave the UK gauranteed

    • Sanctimony

      A simply brilliant reason to leave !