With Boris Johnson and Michael Gove writing that voters can’t trust the Prime Minister’s promises on Eurozone bailouts, and John Major claiming that Gove wants to privatise the NHS and that Boris wants to charge people for using the service, many of our readers will feel that they have seen enough blue-on-blue fire to last a lifetime. We feel the same way.
But it is none the less a fact that the two big TV debates to come – ITV’s this coming Thursday, and the BBC’s on June 21, three days before the poll – will pit Conservative against Conservative: that’s the way they are constructed. This is perhaps inevitable given the binary nature of the referendum, deep Tory divisions about Britain’s EU membership, and the party’s presence in government.
The only question left, then, is which Tory presents for Remain in both events, given that we know Boris Johnson will make the case for Leave in each? It is reported that Amber Rudd will be the anti-Brexit Conservative in the ITV debate and that Ruth Davidson - our columnist, and the woman who has taken to topping our monthly League Table – will take on that role in the BBC event three days before referendum day itself.
It is not hard to work out Downing Street’s logic (for let’s acknowledge at once that David Cameron and George Osborne now take the key Remain decisions). To watch Boris out-alpha another man in debate is one thing. For him to try the same trick against a woman would be quite another. There are gender differences, and they can matter. It was once said that Disraeli could treat Gladstone like a telescope – draw him out, see through him, and shut him up. The same might be hazarded about a woman and the former Mayor.
The use of a woman as a counterfoil to Boris could also remind viewers that there is a slight element of – how can we best put this? – well, let us call it the Berlusconi Factor about the former Mayor. There is a perception in some quarters that he has not always treated women well. If this thought has occured to me in passing, and occured to you too, then you can bet that it will also have occured to Number 10. Davidson already has form in slating Boris. Expect to see more of that live from Wembley arena on June 21.
There are a number of ways of reacting to Remain’s plan. One can argue that it won’t work. One can assert that it will. One can say that all’s fair in love, war, and TV referendum debates. One can call it ingenious. One can call it cunning. But the one thing that one cannot call it is brave. Rudd is a relatively new and junior Cabinet Minister. Davidson is not only not such a Minister but not even an MP. Where are the Cabinet big guns, such as Michael Fallon? Where – if a woman is required – is Theresa May?
Where, above all, is George Osborne? We accept, reluctantly, that it is best for the dignity of his office for David Cameron not to debate directly with Boris (although there is a lively counter-case to the contrary). But there is a limit to how far this logic will run. It surely cannot be right for neither the Prime Minister nor the Chancellor to go head-to-head with the most senior Tory put up by the Leave side. They owe it to the voters to debate the issues in this campaign as they might do in the Commons.
Furthermore, Osborne has been the strategic driver of the Remain campaign. It is the Treasury’s claims about the supposed effects of Brexit that Remain have been put front of shop, and are the most controversial. His friends and contacts abroad, such as Christine Lagarde, have not been backward about coming forward to tell us what they think. It is the Chancellor’s choice for governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, who has been so persistently and questionably present during the campaign.
“My approach to all these things whether it’s the battle I fought years ago to change the Conservative party to make it electable, to make it more progressive on issues like gay rights and the role of women…or now about Europe,” Osborne said yesterday said yesterday. “I get stuck in. You won’t find me hanging around at the back with the baggage train.” He also said: “I genuinely believe this is far more important than any general election we’ll ever be asked to vote in”. That is a very suggestive remark and one that he ought to be quizzed on.
But it seems that the Chancellor will not be available. Far from stepping out boldly into the front line for this personal Agincourt, he will instead be, well, hanging around at the back with the baggage train. It is, in at least one sense, a bit rum. Osborne is a slick debater. Boris is not really a debater at all. One would have thought that the Chancellor would relish the opportunity to make his case.
It is also strange in another sense. Osborne does not lack nerve. It was his chutzpah that helped to see off an election in 2007 that Labour might have won. It was his grit that saw him stick to the plan which produced economic recovery – yes, that’s the same plan that the IMF, that infallible forecaster and supporter of Remain, once rubbished. True, that same determination can get him into trouble, but that’s simply further evidence that it’s there.
But whatever the Chancellor’s reasoning, his decision shouldn’t pass without comment. Rudd and Davidson are the David Gaukes of this referendum campaign – that’s to say, they’re being sent in for assignments that Osborne would rather duck. It is unmanly for him at once to gesture towards the heat of battle while creeping quietly towards the tents. We will help to make that point by running this editorial for each day this week, and perhaps for longer.