Britain voting to leave could undermine Cameron's "big society" visionby Rebecca Coulson / February 1, 2016 / Leave a comment
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There’s nothing like a binary question to stir emotions, and few questions are more stirring than the one we will face when we vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union. But while we have seen the draft ballot paper and thus know the wording of the question, there is much else that we are still in the dark about. We do not know when the vote will take place, we do not know whether ongoing negotiations will affect the essence of what we are voting on, and we do not know who the senior MPs campaigning for “in” and “out” will be.
Clashes over the referendum could split the country asunder, but what effect might such clashes have on the (usually sturdy) Conservative cabinet?
With Jeremy Corbyn as Leader of the Opposition the Conservative party is free to do almost anything it pleases—almost nothing can jeopardise its victory in 2020. In addition, Cameron will almost certainly stand down before the next general election, and it is not yet certain who his replacement will be. Thus, while defying the party line on a referendum is usually career suicide, if there was ever a time to do it, this is it. Indeed, dispute has even been sanctioned from above.
For which side are different cabinet ministers likely to campaign? Cameron and Osborne will, of course, mastermind “in,” and—since Iain Duncan Smith is avoiding the main campaign—the significant “outers” are Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.
Stephen Crabb, Secretary of State for Wales, and Greg Clark, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, are batting for “in.” John Whittingdale, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, is batting for “out” but, at the moment, lesser-known politicians chiefly count as props for either side. For many politicians the position they end up at will be chosen on the basis of career prospects rather than principle.
We can also make assumptions about the loyalties of other big name politicians: aside from Nicky Morgan’s prematurely pronounced support for “in”, Michael Gove (for all his Euroscepticism) will also stick with Cameron, and we can expect Sajid Javid to stick with Osborne. Brief-wise, it would be very surprising if Philip Hammond and Michael Fallon went against the Prime Minister.
But what of the all-star renegades? Boris Johnson and Theresa May—both top contenders for the Conservative leadership—claim to be waiting for the outcome of negotiations before making their decisions. The eventual announcements of these two figures will be pivotal, not just for them, but for “out” in general. The campaign is struggling with infighting and with a lack of parliamentary backing. For now, Grayling is the “leave” team’s star, and he isn’t exactly popular: look at the approval the equally unpopular Gove received when he abandoned another of his predecessor’s justice reforms last week.
Bagging Boris Johnson or Theresa May would, undoubtedly, bolster the campaign, but it is unlikely that either could lead it to victory. For those who want to be Prime Minister, “leave” represents foreseeable failure; expediency is the true kingmaker at this juncture.
Then there is the matter of timing. Relations between the politicians on opposing sides remain relatively relaxed, but when Cameron’s negotiations are completed and the cabinet’s constituent colours are there for all to see, for how long will ministers cope with their divisions being public? This weekend of renegotiations has been important for Cameron, certainly, but the deal that counts will probably not be made until the Brussels summit in the middle of February, or during March’s European Council meeting. Accounting for the prerequisite sixteen weeks’ notice that must be given before a government holds a referendum, June is the earliest the referendum could be held. In practice, September is more likely.
If negotiations falter further, however, and carry on into next year, quarrels—open or hidden—could turn ugly. Frustration might provoke a change of allegiance for those, such as Gove, whose hearts are currently being overruled by their heads. The issue of immigration, ever-present in discussion about the EU, may flare up more if the Schengen rebellion grows and EU countries continue to put up borders. What’s more, if Angela Merkel flails in the run-up to the 2017 German elections then Britain’s European perspective will readjust.
Whether Britain choses to leave the EU or to remain a member, our decision will have an impact far beyond the UK. Those cabinet members who can ride the upcoming international storm will go gently into 2020. Early declarations may win a badge of integrity, but, in a potentially longer game, holding one’s marked ballot to one’s chest may be much more sensible.
Cameron knows that he has done well, and that his Conservatives are, presently, the UK’s sole party of consequence. But what he won’t want—during this, his legacy period—is the prospect of a reactionary successor, born from cabinet conflicts and a close, or even lost, referendum. Such an event would mean the end of the “big society” vision that he is belatedly trying to make a reality.
Clashes over the European question are inevitable—but the more time it takes to answer it, the more serious they will become.