A few weeks ago, I posted a list of a dozen issues and incidents which had caused frustration or resentment within the Party. It included comments and tactics from both sides, which were regularly being cited by a variety of people across the Parliamentary and voluntary Conservative Party.
Unfortunately, recent events have only increased the air of irritation – as can be seen by the dramatic fall in those respondents to our survey who think the referendum poses a serious threat to Conservative unity.
It’s therefore necessary to update the list. Here are the issues in play, which now number no fewer than 23:
- Attempts to skew the rules of the referendum. Early on in the process, the Government attempted repeatedly to pull a fast onewith 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 reportclaiming 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. Priti Patel described his comments as “hysterical”, and the Prime Minister was later booed by a Sky News audience when he repeated the line.
- 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.
- Osborne’s predictions of recession. The Chancellor took the opportunity before purdah began to publish a Treasury analysis forecasting what he called a “DIY recession”, in a pun crafted for his speech at B&Q. Boris then accused Osborne of “made-up” fears which amount to “talking down” the British economy.
- IDS outing Javid as a closet Leaver. In an interview on the Today programme, Duncan Smith revealed that the Business Secretary had “privately said how much he wanted the UK to leave the European Union”. For Javid, whose personal ratings have plunged into negative territory since his decision to support Remain, it was salt being rubbed into an already painful wound. The strike was delivered as revenge for his endorsement of the Treasury report the day before.
- Priti Patel’s criticism of wealthy Remainers. The Employment Minister didn’t name names when she wrote that the leaders of the Remain campaign didn’t understand popular concern about immigration because “their lifestyles insulate them from this impact”, but it was pretty clear she was talking about the occupants of Downing Street, among others. This caused particular anger at the top of the Government because it was felt to be below the belt for a Conservative minister to make the kind of criticism which normally comes from either Labour or from some Conservative irreconcilables.
- Gove and Johnson’s accusation over the immigration manifesto pledge. On the same day as Patel’s piece in the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Times reported on a letter sent by the top two Vote Leavers to the Prime Minister, on the topic of the Conservative pledge to reduce immigration to the tens of thousands. “This promise is plainly not achievable as long as the UK is a member of the EU and the failure to keep it is corrosive of public trust in politics”, they wrote. It heralded the Leavers’ all-out assault on the issue, but also drew Cameron’s personal authority into play.
- Talk of a leadership challenge. Almost immediately after the Leave campaign had begun their immigration push, Nadine Dorries and Andrew Bridgen both chose to introduce to the debate the prospect of a possible leadership challenge – a “foolish, futile” decision, in the view of this site. This didn’t just annoy Downing Street and the Remainers, it also elicited frustration from other Leave campaigners, such as James Wharton, IDS and Liam Fox.
- Gove and Johnson’s second letter attacking Cameron’s integrity. A week on from their joint letter about immigration, the dynamic duo/gruesome twosome (delete as per your personal prejudice) repeated the tactic, this time writing to the Prime Minister about the economy. They reminded him of the fact the Government had ended up paying the extra £1.7 billion to Brussels, even after he had declared the demand was unacceptable, and – most damagingly – concluded that “The public cannot trust EU or Government promises that we won’t be paying for Eurozone bailouts.” By implication, they were suggesting that the Prime Minister’s word was not reliable.
- Cameron and Boris trading personal insults. Evidently intent on not taking this lying down, the Prime Minister told the Mail on Sunday that Johnson talks “nonsense on stilts“, while the Man-Who-Would-Be-King suggested Cameron’s arguments are “total tosh“. Neither’s side particularly gained from doing so, but the Conservative Party, caught in the middle, certainly lost as a result.
- Major’s second blue-on-blue attack. Speaking to Andrew Marr on the same day, John Major gave senior Leavers both barrels, calling their campaign “deceitful” and “fundamentally dishonest”, criticising Duncan Smith as “disloyal”, and arguing that “‘The NHS is as safe with [Gove and Johnson] as a pet hamster would be with a hungry python.’ It later emerged that Downing Street had, as some suspected, put him up to the attack which Liam Fox suggested would be harmful to the Conservative Party long after the referendum
- Rees-Mogg’s blunt reply. The gloves being off, Major soon received a sharp response from the Commons’ master of Queensbury Rules – on Westminster Hour, Rees-Mogg described his intervention as ““the bitter ramblings of a vengeful man. He is the man who took us into the Exchange Rate Mechanism, destroyed hundreds of thousands of jobs, had people evicted from their homes and led to the destruction of businesses for the sake of his failed European policy…I’m going to sling the mud straight back at Sir John Major, a knight of the garter who ought to know how to behave better.”
- Andrew Cooper’s elitism. A lot of those close to Cameron have wisely stayed in the background, but not so Baron Cooper of Windrush, Downing Street’s pollster, who announced yesterday that “More or less every single serious person in the world thinks leaving the EU is a stupid idea. On the other hand Boris reckons it’ll be fine.” Given the hefty dollop of snobbery and condescension in those comments, various Leave campaigners view it as a gift akin to Matthew Parris’ famous criticism of Clacton, which aided UKIP. One can’t help being reminded of the row sparked by someone at the top of the Party allegedly dismissing grassroots Conservatives as “mad, swivel-eyed loons”.
- The Prime Minister’s new lines on “untruths” from “Little Englanders”. In a rare press conference (interpreted by The Spectator as a sign of panic), Cameron accused the Leave campaign of telling “untruths” to voters, echoing Major’s critique. A few hours later, the non-debate with Farage saw plenty of swinging but few punches connect – however, a new Cameron line did emerge as he repeatedly called Leave supporters “Little Englanders”. He may have had Farage in mind, but it hardly seems wise to dismiss almost half of the Parliamentary Conservative Party, a majority of Conservative Party members and a large proportion of the electorate in those terms.
It’s clear that such incidents are increasing in regularity and in bitterness from both sides, which bodes ill for the Conservative Party. Whatever happens in the referendum, it will take more than an MPs’ away-day to heal some of the wounds inflicted thus far.