As the referendum campaign continues, it’s undeniable that both sides of the debate within the Conservative Party have become increasingly frustrated with each other. Here’s a tally of the main issues which people on each side cite as raising their hackles:
- Attempts to skew the rules of the referendum. Early on in the process, the Government attempted repeatedly to pull a fast one with regard to the purdah rules – despite previous assurances.
- The £9.3 million propaganda campaign. Having conceded that at least some kind of purdah period would be enforced, along with strict rules on spending by each campaign, Downing Street then approved a huge pro-EU publicity campaign, funded by taxpayers and implemented in addition to the Remain campaign’s own spending. The leaflet and website were carefully issued before purdah began.
- Gove’s “betrayal”. The Goves and the Camerons were firm friends before they became allies on the Tory front bench. Having wrestled with the conflict between his personal loyalties and his political beliefs, the Justice Secretary went with his principles and became a leading figure in Vote Leave. The Prime Minister is said to be hurt by the decision, and his wife is reported to have flung an accusation of “betrayal”. These things can be overcome, but it would be a mistake to underestimate the power of personal feelings in the political arena.
- Duncan Smith’s resignation. Gove’s polite difference from the Prime Minister’s position may have stung, but IDS’ furious departure from Government practically drew blood – while his reason for resigning was far more about his loss of faith that the Chancellor supported his welfare reform agenda, various people in Downing Street instantly sought to make it first and foremost about the referendum. They evidently think – or prefer to think – that was the former Welfare Secretary’s real motivation. Meanwhile, he has doubled down, describing the Treasury as “characterised solely by a lack of vision.”
- The Treasury forecast. Having deployed taxpayers’ money on campaign advertising, the Chancellor took things a step further and deployed Treasury civil servants to produce and then promote a report claiming that every family would be thousands of pounds worse off by 2030 if we left the EU. The fact that the Treasury reliably gets its own forecasts wrong on just about every topic, and the difficulties in accurately predicting GDP 14 years into the future, led FullFact to describe the figure as “almost certainly wrong”, while Conservative MPs were yet again angered at the Government they support using Whitehall to effectively generate billboard content for the pro-EU campaign.
- Carney’s intervention. The independence of the Bank of England is supposedly inviolable – so it was extraordinary to see its Governor intervening in a referendum campaign to warn against one outcome. While it’s certainly his job to assess and prepare for various potential risks to the economy, it’s unprecedented for him to start advising against particular courses of action, particularly with a vote only weeks away. While pro-EU campaigners celebrated his comments, presumably they wouldn’t be so keen on him intervening for or against particular parties’ economic proposals in the run-up to a General Election. His critics charge that the Chancellor must have encouraged him to speak out – and in so doing that Carney’s reputation for independence has been damaged.
- The IMF warning, brought to you by…the Treasury? The latest in the Prime Minister’s barrage of big guns was the IMF, whose Managing Director, Christine Lagarde, presented a dire prediction at the Treasury. Having begun by thanking “UK authorities who have been helping us in preparing the article”, she was later forced to deny the Treasury had input to the report.
- Major’s blue-on-blue attack. John Major plus EU politics, what could possibly go wrong? Last week the former Prime Minister issued what the Telegraph described as a “thinly veiled attack on Boris Johnson and Michael Gove”, accusing Leave campaigners of “dangerous” rhetoric on immigration which risks causing “division” and makes them sound like UKIP. There are two ironies to this assault. First, it was Major’s own incompetent handling of Britain’s place in the EU which created UKIP in the first place. Second, as Sunder Katwala of British Future points out, it is only pro-EU campaigners, including anonymous Home Office sources, who are irresponsibly trying to suggest EU migrants resident in the UK might be deported. Strangely, Major doesn’t seem interested in challenging this nonsense from his own side.
- The Prime Minister’s rhetoric. Cameron is certainly going all out to win the referendum, but some of his claims are now starting to irritate even the most calm Leavers on his own backbenches. Choosing to conjure with the ghosts of war and genocide, as he did last week, has led several of them to openly question his judgement – particularly as they loyally supported him when he claimed he was serious that if the renegotiation failed then he would be willing to “walk away” from the EU.
- Boris’s leadership ambitions… The whole political stage is currently illuminated by twin spotlights – if the first is the EU referendum, then the second is the looming leadership race. The idea that Boris has used the former to aid him in the latter particularly irritates fans of the Chancellor. The ex-mayor’s seemingly last minute decision to back Leave further fuelled the suggestion that he was willing to use the future of the nation for his own ends. The troubles arising from Osborne’s latest budget haven’t helped the relationship to improve, and the Prime Minister is reportedly hoping to delay the race to give his closest ally time to recover his standing.
- …and his, er, colourful arguments. Just as some Leavers allege the Prime Minister is going over the top in warning of war, so various Remainers are becoming increasingly irritated by some of Johnson’s arguments. His reference to President Obama’s Kenyan roots led some to suggest he risked harming the Conservative brand by inviting allegations of racism, while his recent passing reference to Hitler’s dreams of a rather different type of European super-state have further annoyed them. His lapse into personal criticism when he called the Prime Minister’s warning of war “demented” made matters worse.
- Cameron seeking to avoid debating with Gove or Johnson. Finally, we have the furore over the debates – or, rather, the non-debates. The Prime Minister has agreed to take part in “referendum specials” on the topic, which will see him speak and take questions, followed by someone from the Leave side, which isn’t quite the same thing. Downing Street is also trying its best to avoid going up against the senior Conservatives who Vote Leave are putting up – apparently striking a deal with ITV behind the scenes to go head to head with Farage, Cameron’s preferred opponent, rather than to take on a representative of the official Leave campaign, like Gove.
Sadly, this post may well need to be updated before the referendum campaign is over – leaving a lot of work for Conservatives to do in order to reunite once the dust settles. We have already offered some suggestions on how to calm these tensions, and we will write more on this topic in the coming weeks.