David Cameron seems to be planning to conduct his campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union using a series of soundbites that would be more at home on one of those annoying graphics people post on Facebook. Tapping into the irritating vogue for sharing pictures of sunsets with “life-affirming” quotes about how you should dance like nobody’s watching and treat yourself because no one else will, the Prime Minister this week told his MPs that “people should do what is in their heart” when it comes to deciding how to vote in the referendum.
There is a serious reason Cameron is sounding so corny in the Commons. He hinted at it in his remarks to MPs on Wednesday afternoon, stating that “members should not take a view because of what their constituency association might say or because they are worried about a boundary review, or because they think it might be advantageous this way, or that way”. The Prime Minister and those around him are worried about how Tory MPs – particularly those first elected in May 2015 – will fare when they tell their associations how they plan to vote in the EU referendum. Specifically, he is worried about those who think Britain should stay in the EU.
The Tory grass roots are much more Eurosceptic than the party in Westminster. Many constituency memberships have no active members who are in favour of staying in. Ministers working the “rubber chicken circuit” of local party dinners have been surprised by the strength of feeling in favour of Brexit. Cameron is well aware that, even if he gets a surprising number of MPs backing his stance in the referendum, he won’t take his entire party with him. This doesn’t matter that much to someone who plans to step down as party leader before the next election – but it does matter to the MPs who go back each week to their constituencies, and who will need to convince those associations to take them on again after the planned changes to constituency boundaries in 2018.
Some MPs were threatened with deselection by their associations during the Tory row over gay marriage in 2013, but found that, in the end, they weren’t actually punished for supporting the legislation enabling same-sex weddings. Those Tories might feel a little less unsettled by the heated debates at their local meetings, but their newly elected colleagues will be experiencing constituency divisions for the first time – and on a matter of even greater importance to the Conservative Party than marriage and the family.
The old Tory think-tank the Bow Group is also trying to stir up tensions: its chair, Ben Harris-Quinney, this week threatened that Tory members “will be unforgiving towards any MP who thinks they can say one thing in an election pledge, and do another when in Parliament”. Harris-Quinney does have a point, which is that some Tories will have unwisely over-egged their Eurosceptic credentials when applying for selection in a seat and when campaigning during the election. Some of them will have done this for purely cynical reasons, but others might now be realising for the first time that they just can’t quite stomach voting for Britain to leave the European Union. Others are genuinely torn between their loyalty to Cameron, who they know had far more to do with them winning their seat than they did, and their intense dislike of Brussels.
The rather paltry deal that the Prime Minister and European Council President Donald Tusk unveiled this week has made deciding even harder. One newly elected MP told me: “If you’d given me this deal a year ago and asked me what do I think, I would have laughed in your face and said Cameron can do better than that. Now I’m feeling a bit stupid because I’m actually considering campaigning to stay in.”
Some Conservatives have decided to delay telling their associations they’re in favour of staying in, using the public meetings on the referendum that most of them are organising at the moment as an excuse, as they’ll need to chair those meetings and appear neutral. But this only puts off the pain for a little while. MPs cannot possibly expect to be able to sail through the whole campaign without revealing their position. If nothing else, their colleagues in the Remain camp will be urging them to join in campaigning and they can’t hide at home under the duvet all the way to 23 June, when many expect the referendum to take place.
It’s much easier hiding in Westminster, where most of the Cabinet want to stay in the EU, than it is to confront a constituency association. But many of those Cabinet ministers in favour of remaining in the EU have still made life more difficult for those nervous backbench MPs by spending the past few years making very Eurosceptic comments. Theresa May, for instance, gave a very hardline speech to the Conservative Party conference last autumn that most interpreted as a signal she could only possibly campaign for Out, only to give an even stronger signal this week that she would in fact campaign for In. She and other ministers have marched a lot of Tory troops up the hill, before steaming off in the other direction.
Cameron is aware of this risk of cabinet ministers doing a Grand Old Duke of York with Conservative members and, indeed, the country. His colleagues are also concerned that the press will continue to criticise his “deal”, before begrudgingly saying Britain is still ultimately better off in at the last minute.
Both camps in the referendum speak constantly of the need to be civil to one another and protect the party from a damaging long-term split. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be difficult and bruising local splits between associations and their MPs. The Prime Minister can urge his colleagues to vote “like nobody’s watching” all he likes. In practice, it’s going to be a lot more difficult than that.
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