Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers deserve congratulations for their role in pressing the Prime Minister to grant ministers the freedom to campaign on either side of the EU referendum from the point at which the renegotiation ends. As Paul wrote yesterday, ‘There will be far more to the background against which this decision was made than meets the eye’. The role of eurosceptic Cabinet ministers in facing the Prime Minister down on the issue deserves an honourable mention.
It’s also worth considering the possible dynamics of how this came to pass, and what happens next.
There are two possible readings of events. It could be that the demand was issued from a position of weakness, with Grayling fearing that he might face the sack in the next reshuffle, and therefore being willing to threaten to jump before being pushed.
Alternatively, the position of Cabinet eurosceptics can be seen as a position of strength – Cameron, or whoever succeeds him, will need Leave supporters in the Cabinet after the referendum, whatever the outcome, in order to demonstrate Tory unity is intact. Therefore, choosing to become such a person is in fact a process of opting in to becoming a protected minority, in career terms. Add in that the Prime Minister would for obvious reasons prefer not to face resignations either during or immediately after his renegotiation, and doesn’t want to hold a reshuffle at this point, and one can see where the leverage comes in.
Either could be true – indeed, each may be true for different people, or both factors could act in concert. Whatever the mix, Cameron will not be pleased to have been forced off his preferred position yet again (this is the fourth time, after the referendum question, purdah and Conservative Party neutrality). His relationship with Grayling has long been strained – in 2010 the latter entered the election as Shadow Home Secretary and emerged on the other side without a job in the Cabinet – and this won’t help matters.
So what happens next? Will other Cabinet ministers (IDS, Gove, May, Boris, Javid) come out for Leave? If they do then they will provide some safety in numbers, and the Leave campaign will have gained some serious momentum. If they don’t, then for Grayling and Villiers there would be a degree of safety in rarity – Cameron would be ill-advised to pursue a Corbyn-style ‘revenge reshuffle’ and purge those who disagreed with him in a free vote. If none of those others emerge as Leavers, then Grayling could well end up as the most prominent Cabinet member on that side of the debate.