Following victories on the EU referendum question, the restoration of purdah and the neutrality of the Conservative Party’s money and machine, the focus of those looking ahead to the campaign itself has now shifted to the issue of whether ministers will be allowed to campaign for Leave when the time comes.
The Telegraph reports that half a dozen Cabinet ministers have told the newspaper that they want the Prime Minister to grant them the freedom to campaign for Leave while keeping their jobs. This of course raises the question of who the six might be.
Without on-the-record statements, deducing their identities is an inexact science – it may be that some have secretly harboured a more anti-EU position than they have yet let on, while others may have made public noises that sound more eurosceptic than they in fact are. But if we had to guess, the list in order of declining probability would be as follows:
- Chris Grayling. The Telegraph unsubtly illustrates the story with a picture of the Leader of the House, which is a handy start. In Manchester, Grayling predicted the UK would “prosper” outside the EU – while speaking at an event organised by Business for Britain, which a few days later launched its Vote Leave campaign. He was cited in the Sunday Times yesterday as one of those who might fall should Cameron decide to purge anti-EU ministers.
- Iain Duncan Smith. A long-standing eurosceptic (who rebelled against Maastricht in the 1990s) he has made little secret of his dislike for the EU. On the other side of the scale is his natural instinct towards loyalty, arising particularly from his own experience as Conservative leader.
- Theresa Villiers. The Northern Ireland Secretary is another of those named in the Sunday Times as “implacably opposed” to EU membership, and her name has floated around such lists for some time. A former MEP, she has seen the Brussels machine first hand – notably her previous sallies on the topic have focused on the importance of a successful renegotiation to persuading people to stay.
- John Whittingdale. Another long-standing critic of the EU, in June he was asked by the Telegraph about the question of whether ministers would be allowed to choose sides in the referendum. He replied: “I’m going to stick to what the Prime Minister has said,” he says. “We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I hope very much that he will come back with a deal that is in the interests of this country that we can cheer and accept. I’m not going to speculate what would happen if that’s not the case because I still hope and believe that it will be.”
- Michael Gove. It’s three years since the then-Education Secretary made his foray in the Mail on Sunday to argue that the UK ought to seek a renegotiation, underpinned by the clear view that there is “nothing to be scared of” in leaving the EU. Three months after that, the Prime Minister made his Bloomberg speech promising the referendum.
- Priti Patel. Clearly located on the right of the Parliamentary Party, Patel rose to Cabinet level as Employment Minister in May. She has previously made strong comments about the need to fundamentally change the EU – not least when she wrote on this site of the need to control access to the UK welfare system and more broadly to restore sovereignty to British law.
There may well be others – and more could find that when the renegotiation comes back it is insufficient to satisfy their views or those of their constituents. Given the numbers and the names, the idea of a reshuffle to sack all those who want to leave the EU looks increasingly impractical for the preservation of good Government, and damaging to the Conservative Party. It would be far better to allow ministers to make their own minds up on this crucial issue, so that the business of running the country may continue uninterrupted after the referendum and the Party could go into 2020 united rather than simmering with frustrations. Already the shadow hangs over the next reshuffle, with those who might lose their jobs effectively offered the opportunity to portray themselves as martyrs.
Today’s newspapers hold another issue for the Prime Minister when he considers how the EU question may influence future reshuffles, too. Boris (whom Cameron reportedly intends to elevate to the Cabinet once his mayoralty ends) is again flirting with the topic – this time declaring his view that the primacy of British law must be restored.
This is a carefully chosen theme: the primacy of Westminster is one of the red line demands of Conservatives for Britain, and a sore spot for Downing Street given the EU’s complete intransigence on the issue. He argues that we could simply declare British law supreme without technically having to leave. Well, yes and no; either we could say it aloud, like an incantation, only for nothing to change in practice, or we could say it and mean it, and start disobeying EU laws in their thousands. In either case it would be simpler, more effective and distinctly more legal just to actually leave the EU without any such messing around.
Readers could be forgiven for wishing that Boris would just make his mind up, rather than testing out clever arguments without quite saying that he supports Brexit. Hopefully he will do so eventually, before people become too exasperated.
In the meantime, the Prime Minister has a hole from which to extricate himself: demanding all ministers back him to the hilt in the referendum or lose their jobs would be wrong, but it also looks increasingly risky. If they’re happy to follow him on everything else, then forcing them out over their views on the EU – views which many MPs and most Party members share – would be to sacrifice a good number of effective senior members of the Government for little gain. That would be quite a price to pay.