Boris told the assembled media outside his house of the “heartache” involved in his decision to back Leave. Michael Gove called it “the most difficult decision of my political life”. They’re not alone in finding it difficult to settle on one side or another – before the last few days only a small minority of Conservative MPs had declared for either Remain or Leave. While the numbers on the record for both have risen, there are still quite a few who are still officially undecided.
To gain some insight into their dilemma, it’s worth listing the different pressures to which they are currently subject (in no particular order):
- Personal belief. Politicians excel at having an opinion on just about everything, from the local council’s road resurfacing programme to the ideal way to run a pensions system. That goes, of course, for Britain’s relationship with the EU, too. Most of those who are fundamentally and overwhelmingly committed to either Remain or Leave have already declared, but all those left will have an instinctive leaning one way or the other – the gut feeling that kicks in when the word Brussels is mentioned.
- Loyalty to their leader. There’s no getting away from the fact that the Prime Minister delivered the first Conservative majority government in two decades, helping MPs in more marginal constituencies to win or retain their seats in the process. This is why Eric Pickles chooses to frame the choice as a judgement on Cameron personally. For ministers, he – or in some cases the Chancellor – has also given them a leg-up in terms of patronage. It might be distasteful, but it does matter for some. As one MP told us recently: “There are lots of jokes going round in the tearoom like: ‘Hello, have you been made envoy to Botswana or Bhutan yet?’ because that seems to be how they’re doing it, guaranteeing posts like that.”
- The forthcoming leadership election. While Cameron got the Party to where it is now, that isn’t the be all and end all for MPs with an eye on their careers. He has already said that he won’t serve a third term, so by 2020 a new leader will be in charge. As can be seen from the higher than expected number of MPs backing Leave, this factor has played some part in blunting the power of personal loyalty to Cameron as a factor. Those with an eye on who the next leader might be could read it three ways: 1) a pro-Remain leader (like Osborne) might prefer to promote those who agreed with him, 2) a pro-Remain leader might well feel the need to promote a mix of Leave and Remain supporters to demonstrate his or her commitment to unity after the referendum, 3) a pro-Leave leader (like Boris) might feel the need to promote a Leave/Remain mix to communicate the same message. Only the first of those scenarios – arguably the least likely one – would suggest it would be unwise to back Leave if an MP is already leaning that way.
- The local Association. Despite the desperate hunger of some in the media to relive the 1990s (at least in part because it’s easier to recite a script you’ve already got a handle on, rather than to go to the effort of learning about a new situation), there has been hardly any talk of deselection of MPs for their stance in the referendum. Bitter internal division is best left to the Labour Party nowadays. Until recently, few MPs reported any pressure from their Association in either direction. The Prime Minister, though, shot himself in the foot with his comments about MPs not being pushed around by their Associations – directly as a result of that comment, a decent chunk of Party members and officers are now watchful lest their MP feels pressured into ignoring them. For the new intake, whose relationship with their Association is still being forged, this is particularly important – they are still feeling out what works and what doesn’t, and having got onto the green benches none of them want to blot their copybook.
- The manifesto. As I wrote last week, the deal the Prime Minister has struck with the EU not only falls short of his own stated aims in the Bloomberg speech, but it falls well short of the pledges made in the Conservative manifesto, too. Anyone who has ever heard of the Lib Dems can tell you that manifestoes aren’t always followed – but that same person can also report what can happen to parties who flagrantly breach them. Often MPs find that failure to fulfil a manifesto pledge is forced upon them by the decisions of the Government – this is a relatively rare example of an opportunity to choose to implement it (by voting Leave) or not.
- Their own past comments. MPs – and particularly new MPs – will have thought carefully about what to say on the EU before the 2015 election, first to their selection meeting of either Tory members or a wider range of voters in the constituency, and second on the doorstep. Many settled on some variation of “If the referendum is on the EU as it is now, I’d vote Out, but I’m confident the Prime Minister can get a better deal/fundamental reform/the changes we’ve promised, which will mean I’ll vote In”. Now that the renegotiation has failed to produce any fundamental reform – and even the limited changes which it does promise might well be temporary at best – those who are still minded to vote Remain find themselves searching for a way to make this decision match up with that promise.
- The state of the campaigns. The Prime Minister may have said MPs should “vote with their heart”, but yesterday on Marr he was implying the opposite. Do you really want to line up with people like Farage and Galloway?, he asked. This points to the final important factor for Parliamentarians in coming to a decision – who would they be signing up to campaign with? The dreadful decision of the Grassroots Out campaign on Friday to put Galloway on stage as their headline speaker definitely shook the confidence of some who were mulling a Leave vote. At the same time, the successes of Vote Leave in securing intellectual heavyweights like Gove, the support of all of his other Cabinet colleagues and of course the coup of securing Boris will offer them some reassurance. The Galloway decision appears to have been made with the aim of scoring designation points with the Electoral Commission, but the price of doing so could be to harm the appeal of the broader Leave campaign. Beyond the personalities, there’s also the question of campaigning strength on the ground and the prospects of victory. Politicians do, after all, like to be on the winning side.