The three most senior Cabinet Ministers who may back Brexit are Theresa May, Michael Gove…and you. The Justice Secretary is constrained by his friendship with David Cameron, and may wait until the renegotiation is complete before making up his mind. The Home Secretary, thoughly plainly seized by the belief that the present terms of Britain’s EU membership are making immigration control impossible, is not a natural Eurosceptic. That leaves you.
Like Gove, you have little time for the EU. Unlike him, you have made this clear fairly recently. “Currently costs outweigh benefits,” you tweeted as recently as last November. “Unless we get major reform, nothing’s off the table”. To be sure, you used the Downing Street-approved formula of “nothing’s off the table” rather than the more straightforward “we should leave”. But you slipped in “major” to make your point – knowing full well that the Prime Minister’s four-point renegotiation plan doesn’t propose sweeping reform.
Furthermore, you had crossed the road to send the tweet – or rather pick the fight. BSE had issued a tweet suggesting that you support Britain’s EU membership. You could have kept quiet. After all, lots of people issue lots of tweets, others of them doubtless purporting to put your view. Why embarrass an organisation that, in your present job, you have to work with? But you swooped on the tweet none the less like a bald eagle taking out a complacent chicken. Mission accomplished!
At the end of September, you said that Brexit would “open up opportunities. I am not afraid of that at all”. At its start you said that leaving “isn’t something I’d be afraid of”. Earlier you, you said…but why continue with this catalogue of quotes that show where your heart lies? Your mind and record are clear. Indeed, you were once thrown out of a Party Conference hall, for goodness’ sake, for distributing an anti-ERM leaflet. You had written it yourself and it was called The ERM: a fatal mistake. “This will all end in tears,” you wrote (correctly).
I understand your scruples. You owe a debt of gratitude to David Cameron and one of loyalty to George Osborne, whose PPS you once were. Cabinet solidarity matters. But Chris Grayling’s mix of calculation and courage has transformed the position. By forcing the Prime Minister’s hand and timing, the Commons Leader has helped to confirm that Cabinet Ministers will be free to campaign either way. Three at least are clearly for Brexit: Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers and Grayling himself. There is no good reason for you not to join them.
Are you deterred by the worry that coming out as a fully-fledged Brexiteer will damage your career? This would not be contemptible: careers matter – at least, if one is a politician who wants to get things done rather than just sound off. But why should declaring your convictions harm you? In the event of Remain winning the referendum, David Cameron will work for party unity. After all, a majority of Party members may back Brexit, a significant tranche of Conservative MPs will do so and he has a formal majority of only 12.
He will need you, with your talent, ethnic minority status (let’s be frank) and appealing back story. And George Osborne will take the point. He knows that he will have to reach an accommodation with the Eurosceptics. This may explain where the suggestion that you stand as his deputy on a leadership “dream ticket” comes from. Perhaps it has been put to you that if you support Remain you will somehow work yourself into a position to launch your own bid? But if Party members want a Remain leader, they’ll vote for the real thing. In any event, what if Leave wins?
In short, the Conservative leadership needs you, so you have room for manoeuvre. Sure, you’re not a well-known figure to many voters – unlike May or Boris Johnson. But coming out for Leave would raise your profile, not to mention suiting your principles. And for a serving Business Secretary to declare that Britain could prosper outside the EU would make an impact. Your convictions and calculation point in one direction only. What are you waiting for?