The original instinct of both David Cameron and George Osborne was to refuse Ministers the liberty to campaign for Brexit in the EU referendum that is now likely to come this year. Their thinking was that permitting it would signal division and that voters don’t like split parties – particularly over attention-seizing issues, of which Britain’s EU membership is, to put it mildly, one.
However, they came to recognise that not granting this freedom would only deepen and widen the split, thus causing even more voters to notice it. Some Ministers would have resigned. The 1922 Committee Executive, many Conservative backbenchers, some local Associations and many party members would have protested. The cause of Brexit would have been boosted, and the Government and Party destablised.
So, too, would the Chancellor’s leadership prospects (on which see our poll of earlier today). Resentment would have followed – and, most likely, spilled beyond the referendum into the contest to succeed his friend. He is already the target of complaints that his grip on the Party is excessive and that, to get on in the Government, one must be what this site christened a F.O.G – that’s to say, a friend of George. Best, then, he will have concluded, not to make new enemies or to give extra ammunition to those he already has.
For these reasons, Cameron and Osborne eventually decided that the less bad option is to set pro-Brexit Ministers free. However, their inclination will have been to grant them liberty as late as possible, and to ensure that those Ministers would not be free to exercise it until the start of the formal referendum campaign – in order both to minimise the weakness that the concession would signal, and to deny high-profile Ministerial support to the Leave campaign for as long as possible.
So why has Prime Minister announced today that he will grant pro-Brexit Ministers the freedom they want – and, furthermore, that they will have it not from the start of the referendum campaign but as soon as he returns from negotiations with a settlement? Why has he yielded up an important piece on his chessboard now? There seem to be two main reasons.
First, it is clear that had he not done so, some of those pro-Brexit Cabinet Ministers would have quit – probably soon. The names most frequently touted are those of Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and Iain Duncan Smith. All are strongly convinced Eurosceptics and none are members of Cameron’s inner circle. And unlike some younger high-ranking Ministers with similar views, such as Priti Patel, they are probably nearer the end of their service than the start. So why not leap from Cabinet, they will have asked themselves, rather than wait to be pushed?
The Prime Minister thus faced the prospect of a Villiers or a Grayling, say, dramatically departing Cabinet – declaring, more in sorrow than in anger, that she or he could no longer reconcile their Eurosceptic convictions with the coming renegotiation. Even worse than the headlines that would follow would be the headache that a snap reshuffle would bring, since it would raise the problem of what to do about Boris Johnson. Downing Street wants him in government – but only after Cameron has signed up to a renegotiation deal and thus cannot disrupt its negotiation from within.
The second reason is media management. Move now, Cameron and Osborne and their top team will have agreed, while Labour is consumed by the latest episode of Carry on Corbyn, and the lobby has its gaze fixed on the headline-grabbing contortions of the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle. Hence the timing of the announcement - judiciously briefed to the BBC in advance in order to smoothe its path. What fun Cameron is having in the Commons with Labour claims of Tory disunity!
There will be far more to the background against which this decision was made than meets the eye. The Prime Minister and perhaps the Chancellor will have sat down with those Ministers named above (and others) to thrash out the way forward – particularly, I suspect, the question of when they will be free to speak their minds. Downing Street will have wanted the start of the campaign. They will undoubtedly have wanted earlier.
It isn’t hard to imagine Cameron making a pitch roughly as follows: “Look, Iain,” (or whoever). “You can make your view clear from, let’s say, the day after I come back with any agreement. I’ll grant you that willingly. But I’m asking you to give me something in return in the meantime. There can be no question of any Minister who wants to stay in the Government rocking the boat on my renegotiation before it’s finished. I think that’s fair, don’t you?”
This site has campaigned for Ministers to gain the liberty which the Prime Minister has now conceded. He has given ground earlier than he was forced to do on purdah, and today’s news is very welcome. He has probably staved off any resignations, thereby stopping Leave from gaining a quick hit, and protected the timing of his reshuffle. He can now return to worrying about the referendum intentions of Theresa May (inter alia).
The Graylings and the Villers’ of this world will now feel competing tugs of loyalty. On the one hand, they will want to cut Cameron a bit of slack. On the other, they will yearn to speak out about a cause in which they fervently believe and which could scarcely be more central to the country’s future. They will also want to help give the Leave cause a bit of help during the coming weeks and months.
We hope that, in the nicest possible way, they find means of making their views known. After all, a final lesson of today’s announcement is that the Prime Minister doesn’t dare sack any of them until the referendum is done and dusted (if, that is, he is then in a position to do so). And we hope that May, Michael Gove, Sajid Javid, John Whittingdale and others now join them.