Every once in a while though not all that often, a politician’s decision brings with it a character test – a crunch point where ambition, belief, and disposition meet. How they deal with it tells one a lot about them. So it has been with the EU referendum and two Cabinet members who, though seen as possible or even probable supporters of Leave, came out in the end for Remain. The first is Sajid Javid, the second Theresa May.
Let’s have a closer look at what happened – through the prism of three rules which apply to Ministers no more or less than to the rest of us. First, make sure your reasons for any decision are coherent. Second, be able to explain them clearly – or else don’t do so at all. Third, if you’re not quite sure what you’re going to do, have an exit route prepared. And so to the Business and Home Secretaries.
Javid has a history of Euroscepticism, in the sense of longstanding criticism of the EU project, stretching back to the days when he was thrown out of Party Conference for distributing anti-ERM leaflets.
The Business Secretary, unlike the Home Secretary, is a relatively recent Cabinet arrival. Although he is viewed as a potential leadership candidate, he is also a protege of George Osborne, whose PPS he was and with whom he served at the Treasury. So a decision to back Remain was bound to revive claims that he has done a deal with the Chancellor, perhaps agreeing to serve under him as Chancellor himself if Osborne succeeds David Cameron as Prime Minister.
Friends of the Business Secretary deny this unequivocally, and I should add that I have always found him to be very straightforward. He is also no fool, and will surely have known that his decision to support Remain will have done his leadership prospects no good at all. So we must presume that he took it for the reason he has given, and is not in breach of Rule One.
This brings one to that reason – which, broadly speaking, is that he wishes Britain had never entered the EU, but that this is the wrong time to leave. This is a perfectly legitimate view to hold (and he hints that he may well support Brexit in the future) but rather a hard one to sustain convincingly. If you are stuck with a friend in a collapsing house, and tell him that you wish you’d never entered it, want to leave it, and may well do so in future – but don’t think you should do so just now – you will inevitably provoke a certain amount of comeback. Javid has got himself into a lot of trouble with Rule Two.
This takes one to Rule Three, which he has certainly made a bit of a hash of. If the Business Secretary suspected that he would eventually come out for Remain, he would have been wise to keep his options more open. Instead, he has been busy closing them off. Last year, he said that he “is not afraid at all” of quitting the EU. Last June, he attacked the CBI for coming out in support of Britain staying in the EU before David Cameron’s renegotiation had properly opened. Last November, he tweeted that the costs of staying in the EU outweighed the benefits.
It is true that none of these statements ruled out an eventual decision to back Remain, but Javid will have known how the media would treat them and others would interpret them, or should have.
Now consider the case of Theresa May, who has no history of Euroscepticism in the sense that I earlier outlined, at least until very recently.
The Home Secretary has, at least at first glance, made just as much of a mess of her expectations management as Javid. Last autumn, the political core of her Party Conference speech was a sustained critique of how the EU makes immigration harder to control. It was read as a sign that she was considering supporting Leave. In the weeks that followed, she pointedly refused to say anything about the Prime Minister’s renegotiation, in terms of her eventual decision, other than that she would wait to see its outcome. This was bound to fan the flames, as she will have known perfectly well.
This brings us to that decision. Unlike Javid, she has not written a newspaper article to explain it. And unlike him again, she did not wait until after the renegotiation to announce it. She did so, in effect, after Cameron’s talks with Donald Tusk the previous week that were followed by a draft deal. In other words, she got her apparent change of course in relatively early.
So what on earth has she been up to? One view is that she considered doing what Boris Johnson has since done – that’s to say, coming out dramatically for Leave – but then backed off it, putting Cabinet solidarity before her leadership ambitions.
This may be so, but I hesitantly advance a different explanation – namely, that her objective all along was to wring as many gains on immigration policy as she could out of the eventual deal. This meant putting pressure on Downing Street to ensure these were delivered. That, in turn, meant keeping it in the dark about her eventual intentions. For the more the Prime Minister would worry about her declaring for Leave, the more he would strain to please her in his European Summit negotiations, in order to keep her on side.
And so, if this take on events is right, he did. May got some restrictions on benefit claims. She got new powers to stop criminals entering Britain and new powers to deport them. She got longer re-entry bans for fraudsters and people who collude in sham marriages. You may well protest that these gains won’t be delivered, or don’t go far enough, and I have every sympathy with you. But that is not the point – which is, rather, that they presumably satisfied her.
If this interpretation is correct, the Home Secretary has observed all three of the rules I set out earlier. Her decision made sense to her. She got her decision in early – signalling it before the renegotiation was complete. And she has been smart enough to keep mum about what she was up to all along. Cunning old Theresa!