Downing Street hoped to keep the number of Conservative MPs who would back Leave down to 70 or so, roughly a quarter of the Parliamentary Party. Our latest total today has it at 124: over a third. When the dust has cleared, about two in five Tory MPs will be for Brexit. It may be that after the referendum the Conservative Party will settle down as though nothing has happened. But it may be otherwise: a division on this scale has echoes of the Corn Laws and Tariff Reform, and is taking place in the fissiparous age of Corbyn, Farage, Trump and Saunders.
What can David Cameron best do keep the temperature cool – as he reflects on a week that saw him lacerate Boris Johnson in the Commons (unwisely in our view) and Number Ten quarrel with Michael Gove over the legal effect of the deal (in which it represented the Justice Secretary as having said something that he hadn’t actually said)? The sniping is very far from being one way, but the Prime Minister leads the Party, and the Government. He must take the lead in planning for the future.
Perhaps the first thing he can do is to glance around the table at his daily team meetings. Before the election, Lynton Crosby, John Hayes and Gavin Williamson were present. Now only the last is left. Their absence is part of a wider development. What you might call the Cameroon Right – George Eustice, Michael Gove, Desmond Swayne, Hayes himself – is supporting Leave. And now so is his great patron and mentor, Michael Howard.
It would be unfair to describe senior Downing Street staff – Ed Llewellyn, Camilla Cavendish, Ameet Gill, Liz Sugg – as part of the Cameroon Left, but this group has a certain sensibility. It has the flavour of London about it or, rather, bits of prosperous London. Prosperous London is not a bad thing in itself (disclosure of interest: I live in a bit of it too, at least much of the time), but the Tory Party is about a great deal more than it.
Furthermore, the Whips are in an odd bind. Collectively, they are part of a Government department, and are therefore obliged to further Government policy, which is for Remain. But collectively, they are also Party whips, and the Party is officially neutral. Furthermore, each whip is a Minister, so to speak, and Ministers have freedom of action, though to date only one, Steve Barclay, is for Leave (a lonely and brave decision on his part).
It would be easy to blame the Whips for the collective failure to anticipate the number of Tory MPs who would come out for Leave, but to do so would be to miss some subtleties. The relationship between Number 10 and the Whips is a bit like that of a newspaper editor to the paper’s lawyers. The lawyers always take a cautious view of any article that might contain a libel, partly because that’s their job and partly to cover their backs.
The editor knows this, and thus has a built-in tendency to question their view and a built-in temptation to ignore it. This is more or less how Cameron and George Osborne approach the advice of the Chief Whip. It may well be that there was a failure of early intelligence-gathering, but what has driven swing Conservative MPs to Leave is partly Gove and Boris coming out to do so, especially the former, but more pertinently that they are unimpressed by the EU deal.
In sum, we have a top team that has lost some of its key centre-right loyalists to Leave, senior staff whose flavour is rather different from that of Conservative MPs as whole (not to mention party members), and a Whips Office subject to competing pressures. The Remain and Leave campaigns have their own unofficial whips, which include Chris Skidmore, the Chancellor’s PPS, for Remain and Bill Wiggin, a former whip himself, for Leave.
So what should the Prime Minister do, given the position with the Whips; within his political team and his key staff, and with his Party Chairman, who is very much the Prime Minister’s own appointment and though liked and respected has no independent political standing of his own? ConservativeHome suggests the following.
- Ministers on both the Remain and Leave sides that we have spoken to emphasise keeping Tory MPs working away at activities that have nothing to do with the referendum – attacking Labour in the Commons and outside; working for May’s local elections, Scottish and Welsh elections and the London Mayoral election; having a hand in planning Government policy for when the referendum is over across a wide range of issues. This is all sensible enough. William Hague wants a bonding weekend when the poll is over. This sparks the thought that the annual Parliamentary awayday, due soon, will be especially interesting this year…
- If he isn’t putting one in place already, Cameron needs a hotline to the Leave Campaign, rather in the manner of the Washington-Moscow nuclear hotline during the Cold War, to de-escalate crises if necessary. Llewellyn would presumably be at one end. The best person to put at the other is often round that Downing Street table anyway: Chris Grayling. He would suit partly because he is Leader of the House, and thus has easy access to his Parliamentary colleagues, and partly because he is a natural functionary.
- Not so long ago, the Prime Minister had two PPS’s, Williamson and Swayne. Now he has only the former. He probably needs another – or at least someone to fill the role that Hayes was appointed to fill. That person should arguably also be from the 2010 intake (like Williamson) simply because it is so large and thus the Parliamentary Party’s centre of gravity. Therese Coffey might fit the bill: loyal, popular and a natural networker. Or as Grayling’s deputy she could fill the role anyway. Another name put to me for the PPS post is John Glen. Cameron also needs to fill the gap on the staffing side left by the departure of Oliver Dowden.