Dr Liam Fox is a former Defence Secretary and is MP for North Somerset.
Most elections or plebiscites take on their own personality, and the EU referendum seems to be no exception. At the beginning, the pundits predicted that the splits in the leave campaign – into Vote Leave, Grassroots Out and Leave.Eu – would prove to be a fatal division while “Project Fear”, which proved to be an effective, if not decisive weapon in the Scottish referendum, would dominate.
While everything may change in the latter stages of the campaign, what is clear is that the two sides are much more evenly matched than the Remainers initially envisaged. The Conservative Party leadership not only underestimated the number of Conservative MPs who were sympathetic to the Leave side of the argument, but also how many felt passionately about the need for the restoration of national sovereignty.
All that we can really say for certain at this stage is that both sides seem equally matched as we begin to get into the real campaign, with the Electoral Commission only days away from designation, and that there is everything to play for. As both a lifelong Conservative who has held almost every office from branch YC chairman to Chairman of the national party, but also as an ardent believer that Britain is better off outside the European Union, I feel the conflicted loyalties that many of the readers of this site will have.
By this I do not mean loyalty to the leadership of the party. On this issue, anyone who does not understand that the Tory party is fundamentally divided on Europe cannot possibly have opened a newspaper or switched on the television for the past 30 years. No, the loyalty I mean is to the Party itself and its long-term survival. We have been a source of great prosperity and stability to our country steering it on a path of evolution not revolution, a great political rudder in stormy international and domestic political waters.
There are those who believe that tearing the Conservative Party asunder is a price worth paying for winning their respective sides of the referendum – they should think again. That is not to say that a party split is not impossible, indeed, I have long believed that there was a 30 per cent or so chance that the Party could ultimately divide on the issue of Europe in a way that it did on the Corn Laws. This is not to say that we should be fatalistic about the prospect nor seek to find another course.
It seems to me that there are two main problems in this arena. The first, but less important of the two, is the willingness of some Tories on my own side of the campaign to attack the Conservative Government’s policy, and its record, in order to make short-term points in favour of Brexit. This might be tempting in the short-term, but all those MPs who have ever signed a tempting Early Day Motion will know how easily enemies can use the language chosen as a weapon in later electoral battles. Attacking Government policy on the NHS, for example, whilst it may make short term gains for the Leave campaigns, it can only be of benefit to our enemies in the long term.
The second problem, and I believe the more troublesome, has been hysteria and hyperbole from Government ministers who threatened everything except the oceans swamping our shores should we decide to leave the European Union. It has saddened me to watch excellent colleagues making more and more ridiculous cases to simply further the claims of the Remain campaign about the potential costs of leaving. To claim that everything from our energy policy to students travelling across Europe to football transfers to booze cruises will be at risk if we’re not willing to live under the legal control of Brussels is becoming more and more unbelievable.
While the Brexiteer in me might rejoice a little at the ridiculous nature of these claims and the derision which they have attracted, I worry that, if ministers squander their political capital and reputation on such stories, then it may become much more difficult to regain credibility once the referendum is all over. If both sides descend to the concept of “total war”, that anything can be said and done and any level of casualties tolerated in order to achieve final victory, then victory for either side may be truly pyrrhic.
How do we avoid this? The first element is leadership from the top. The tendency to attack individuals either overtly or, more commonly via officials or apparatchiks, and especially the tendency to impugn their motives is likely to produce a legacy of embitterment and hostility. This is as unnecessary as it is counter-productive. I particularly resented the view that those of us who wish to leave the EU cared nothing for the employment consequences of our constituents and will find it difficult to forget it. I’m sure that there are those on the other side feel exactly the same about some charge or other that has been made.
The answer to this problem is simple but seemingly still elusive. Stick to the issues, not the personalities. I have always been clear that I want to leave the European Union for three positive reasons: to have control over the law-making of our country, to have control over our own borders and to be in charge of our own money. Those who want to remain in the European Union need to similarly make the case for supranational-ism, where our national identity will be submerged into a new political entity, the case for free movement of people across borders and the cross-subsidy of other European nations by the United Kingdom.
They must believe in these things which are unavoidable central elements of the European project or they would not want us to remain in the EU. I challenge them to do so. Only by sticking to the issues can we ensure that we will be able to work together again for the benefit of our country once the referendum is over. We all need to remember that after the 24th of June there will be four more years until May 2020 when we will be expected to fulfil our mandate to govern our country as a majority Conservative Government. The referendum is the most important decision in a generation, and one which I will fight tirelessly to win for the leave campaign – but we would do well to remember that it is not the only issue in the world.