James Cleverly is MP for Braintree.

One of the reasons that I love the game of rugby is that after even the most hard-fought matches both teams shake hands and join each other in the bar for a drink. I’ve seen props who have spent the previous 80 minutes crashing skulls and twisting each other’s spines laughing while comparing stud marks and bruises.

The clash between Bath and Leicester will always be brutal but those rivalries are put aside when an England shirt is pulled on and those same players stand side by side against the real enemy, the Welsh!

Some time between now and December 2017 Conservatives will find themselves scrumming down against other Conservatives. The sport will be the In/Out EU referendum and it will be as hard a battle as any of us have been involved in.

At that time we will have to make a choice, play the man or play the ball.

The post election volte face by Labour over the In/Out referendum was partially driven by a realisation that is was a popular policy but also by the belief that they will be united in the In campaign while we will be split.

Labour can hardly disguise their anticipation at what they expect will be the beginning of the end of the Conservative party. They clearly feel that a vicious, personal and prolonged row over Europe is the inevitable destiny of our party. That the fissure it creates will make us unelectable and that any semblance of cohesion will be lost for a generation. They think that such a row will let them back in the game.

We must prove them wrong.

I hope that David Cameron comes back with a good enough deal to make Britain’s relationship with the EU work. He has a better chance now than at any point in our history. But if the EU is daft enough to dig their heels in over renegotiation I will find myself campaigning to leave the EU and will be on the opposite side of the argument to some Conservatives whom I like and respect enormously.

It is not just the Westminster parliamentary party where differing views exist, but the tone of the debate between Conservatives at other levels of government and in the voluntary party will be heavy influenced by what MPs do. We must lead by example in the professional and personal courtesy that we display to those we are campaigning against.

Our opponents on the Labour benches would like nothing more than to sit back and watch us destroy ourselves during the referendum campaign. I believe that we can fight for the issues we believe in without fighting each other.

David Cameron took ownership of the pledge for a referendum and was rewarded at the ballot box. As Conservatives we must take ownership of both the In and Out campaigns, if we cede ground on either side we will be overshadowed by Labour on the In campaign and by UKIP in the Out camp. Neither party deserves such prominence.

Our political opponents want us to split over this issue. I’ve been involved in business, military, political and sporting strategy and a good rule of thumb in all of them is; whatever your enemy would want you to do, don’t do that.

71 comments for: James Cleverly MP: On Europe, let’s fight hard – and then shake hands

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