The uncertainty about Labour’s position on EU membership, now that Jeremy Corbyn is its leader, has implications for our own Party. As ConservativeHome wrote on Monday, Labour may now back In or Out, but what will perhaps matter most is whether the money and manpower of the party and the unions is placed at the disposal of either campaign, and if so which.
Corbyn’s anti-austerity and anti-capitalist view – the second is not necessarily the same as the first – makes it more likely that neutrality is the eventual outcome as far as resources are concerned. If, however, these eventually came to be committed to the Out campaign, David Cameron and George Osborne would have an even stronger motive to swing the manpower and money of the Conservative Party behind In.
But whatever Labour does, the Party should not commit its resources either way. The simple fact is that when the referendum comes a large part of the Party will support staying in the EU and a large part will support leaving – whatever is the outcome of the renegotiation which, as Mark Wallace keeps pointing out, will be anything but fundamental.
Our poll of Party members suggests that Out outnumbers In by about two to one: my best guess is that the floor for the former is no lower than 30 per cent. Again, about a third of Tory MPS are signed up to Conservatives for Britain. Not all of them will go for Brexit, but many will certainly do so. As the experience of 1975 proved for Labour, differences on this scale over Europe, or over any major constitutional question, have baleful implications.
The divisions within it over the Common Market was part of a tale that ran through 1975 all the way to a split, the formation of the SDP, and 18 years of exile from office. Riding high in the wake of Corbyn chaos, Labour implosion in Scotland and our apparent re-emergence as the natural party of government, there is a temptation to believe that this story of division and defeat couldn’t happen to us.
But it could, and indeed has: think Corn Laws, think Tariff Reform and free trade and protection. With so much difference and passion, the debate within the Party over Europe could turn nasty, and some of it is quite nasty enough already. The Conservative Party cannot but have a view, but CCHQ neutrality with cash, people and data is an essential means of getting the temperature down and keeping it there. The Whips should advise it and the Board should ensure it.
Such an internal deal would represent a Grand Bargain – in Tory terms, anyway. ConservativeHome is for Out, but it and others who hold the same view would have to accept that the Party would be formally for In, since this would be the view of its leadership. Meanwhile, David Cameron and George Osborne would have to recognise that resources neutrality is indispensable to Party unity.
Talking of money, such a stance would also be the most reliable means of keeping the money flowing into CCHQ’s coffers. This site is for a voluntary cap on Party donations, and a big broadening of the donor base, though both would take time. Lord Feldman has led the charge to clear the Party of debt. His effort has been part-funded by donors who are or will be for Out. They might not be best pleased, to put it mildly, were their cash to be committed to In.