Lord Flight is Chairman of Flight & Partners Recovery Fund, and is a former Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury.
I suggest that there are two important lessons for the Prime Minister and the Conservative Party to learn from Harold Wilson’s political handling of the 1975 referendum on the Common Market.
First, while David Cameron is clearly trying hard to achieve the reforms he is seeking with the EU Commission and with member states, if he does not succeed in achieving meaningful change later this month he would be very unwise to seek to present whatever he gets as a great achievement.
If he attempts to do this, as Harold Wilson did, he will be ‘blown out of the water” by the media – which may cite Harold Wilson having tried the same thing. I believe the Prime Minister should present, honestly, what he does achieve, with its limitations, as essentially better than nothing, and with an ongoing agenda for greater EU reform in the future. Assuming his personal stance remains to stay in the EU, notwithstanding, he should similarly present this honestly, with his reasons.
Where, however, I suggest he should copy Wilson is in the management of his Party. It would be a disaster if the Conservative Party were to fall apart on the Brexit issue – on an acrimonious basis where, inconceivable as it may seem, the alternative would be a Corbyn government. It is fair and reasonable to argue that the issue of EU membership is the major, national issue of our times which transcends and crosses party politics.
When the Prime Minister has completed his EU negotiations, he should make it fully clear that all Conservative MPs, including Cabinet Ministers, are free to express their views publically and to campaign on whichever side of the argument they believe in, on the basis of ‘may the best man win’.
After the Referendum, whichever way it goes, the Conservative Government and Party should be able to get back to their business of governing the country and – if the vote is for Brexit – get on with negotiating sensible new arrangements with the EU. The stance taken by Cameron is essentially his stance and not the Government’s stance, and in the meantime the Prime Minister should engage in constructive dialogue with Conservative MPs on both sides.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister should be meticulous in not ‘cheating’ on the rules laid down in the Referendum Act by using Government funding and propaganda to support the Remain case. To do so, particularly if it were seen as contributing to a Remain vote in the referendum, would very likely lead to ongoing resentment and hostility by those MPs in the Brexit camp, and a divided Party.
I suggest it would be politically wise for Cameron to behave in what is clearly a fair and ‘gentlemanly manner’ in promoting his position of staying in the EU. I also make the point that the overwhelming majority of Conservative Party members are in the Brexit camp. Their loyalty is both to their Party and what they see as right for the country. To offend them by either aggressive tactics towards those MPs/Cabinet members in the Brexit camp, or by misusing the power and resources of government to advocate Remain would also damage permanently what is left of the Conservative Party on the ground.
Personally, I am supporting the Brexit campaign, but if the referendum is conducted fairly and the vote is in favour of staying in the EU, my position would then be to make the best of this, and to get on with supporting a Conservative Government and the Conservative party. But if I observed that Government power, influence and funds had been used unfairly to support the Remain cause and those MPs/cabinet members in the Brexit camp had been ill-treated, I would campaign strongly for a new Party leader who supported Brexit.