As Scotland showed us, a referendum can act as a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories. I’ve now lost count of the number of times I’ve seen someone repeat the Scots Nat-originated line that you should bring a pen to the polling booth because “they” will just rub out your vote if you cast it in pencil – as though all-powerful MI5 lizards would spend time erasing and filling in existing ballot papers rather than, er, just printing some new ones. And it’s troublingly common in overly pro-EU circles to hint darkly that Putin must be pulling the strings of the Leave-supporting half (or more?) of the population.
Unfortunately, the latest target for such nonsense is Sarah Wollaston. The Totnes MP announced overnight that she is defecting from Leave to Remain – and laid out her reasons for doing so in The Times this morning. Those reasons aren’t entirely coherent. Principally, she objects to Vote Leave’s £350 million figure and the suggestion that EU membership places excessive burdens on the NHS, but that disagreement isn’t a good reason to abandon her previous view that the EU is “anti-democratic” and incapable of the drastic change it requires. After all, she disagrees strongly with various of the Government’s policies – not least on NHS reform – but was still willing to fight the last election as a Conservative, on the basis that agreement on the fundamental issues outweighed differences on the specifics. If that clash of views could be accommodated, why not this one?
Almost inevitably, given the climate, some have been quick to allege a conspiracy – that Wollaston must have defected on the orders of Downing Street, or even that she must have been a “Remain plant” in the Leave camp from the outset.
I’m sorry, but this is simply too implausible. If Wollaston was the type of person Cameron and Osborne could just text to instruct her to do something helpful, wouldn’t they have done it at some point during all the previous times she has caused them trouble? To put it bluntly, her fundamental political setting is the very opposite of obedience – one suspects that’s why her constituents like her, even if it does lead to some peculiar positions.
I have no doubt that Guido is right to report that pro-EU Whips are touring the Parliamentary Party trying to find defectors. It would be surprising if they were not – that is, after all, part of their job – but it would be even more surprising if any of them thought leaning on Wollaston would do anything other than encourage her to do the opposite of what they asked.
On this particular topic (and on various others, I admit), I think she’s utterly wrong. But if you know the first thing about Sarah Wollaston it’s that the decision, however flawed, is hers, not somebody else’s.