One of the few certainties to emerge from yesterday’s European Council meeting is that David Cameron is presently bent on a quick deal at the next summit in February and a snap EU referendum during the summer. He may change his mind. Agreement may not be reached. His proposal for a four-year ban on EU migrants receiving UK in-work benefits was rejected yesterday evening, and would do little to lessen immigration into Britain even were it to be accepted (and not struck down in due course by the European Court).
But other European leaders seem willing to provide him with a fig leaf in February, and the Prime Minister will doubtless want to clamp it over his privates if they do so – proclaiming all the while that he is fully clothed. Whether he feels able to do so or not may well depend on the size of the leaf. But if he goes for it, that quick referendum will be on – and the choice will be to remain in or leave the EU on roughly the present terms. In this circumstance, how will Cameron deal with members of his Cabinet who are for Brexit?
It appears that the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have different instincts on the answer. Cameron, understandably enough, wants Government unity: his priority is winning the referendum, and insisting that Cabinet members and other Ministers who support Leave must resign would project a sense of governmental purpose and might minimise their number. George Osborne, however, is preoccupied with Party management: his priority is winning the Conservative leadership election that might soon follow the Remain vote that he hopes to achieve.
To this end, he would apparently be willing to see Ministers go their own way during the campaign – but come together afterwards in a show of unity after Britain has voted to stay in. The differences within the Party would thus be successfully managed. This explains the Westminster speculation about a private deal between the Chancellor and the Business Secretary (for which, it should be added, no evidence is visible). Osborne goes for Remain. Javid opts for Leave. And they come together afterwards as a Unity ticket, with Osborne as leader and Javid as Chancellor.
Team Osborne’s view seems to be that an insistence on Cabinet members declaring for Remain would spark a series of resignations – those of Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, probably Theresa Villiers, maybe John Whittingdale, perhaps Michael Gove, possibly Theresa May (not to mention Javid himself). This would communicate division rather than unity to voters, and leave a post-referendum legacy of bitterness and resentment – not the best of inheritances for an Osborne premiership.
The choice is far from easy for the Conservative leadership. If it insists on Ministerial solidarity, it risks those resignations, and visible disunity. But if it allows Ministers to go their own way after the referendum campaign begins, it risks providing them with a perverse incentive to opt for Leave. For since the Chancellor wants the Party to come together after the poll – with himself leading it – it follows that he would need Leave supporters in his Cabinet and Government to achieve that end.
In which case, why not go with your instincts, and opt for Brexit – at least, if you are Gove or Whittingdale or Priti Patel or, say, Michael Fallon? You would thus achieve the happy outcome of opting for the view with which you feel more comfortable without damaging your prospects of returning immediately to the Cabinet table. For the Prime Minister, gaining that agreement in February will not be straightforward. Nor will managing Cabinet members and Ministers if he gets it.