The Political Games of the EU Referendum

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There is an unsavoury alliance between the media and Westminster politicians which perverts analytical debate and promotes voter apathy to the detriment of our democracy. It infects all major political discussions and it will never change unless the media is forced to change its behaviour by public opinion and viewing taste. As such a change is highly unlikely, it is a situation which will continue to prevail which means that campaigners have to live with it and try their best to use to their advantage. I have discussed the toxic effects of this sad fact in an earlier blog. However, today I wanted to use the issue of ministerial resignation over the EU as a case study of the problem.

Now, over the weekend there was a great deal of media speculation about cabinet collective responsibility and whether ministers should be able to campaign against membership of the EU in the forthcoming referendum or whether they would have to resign from the government first. This is a touchy subject for many Tory MPs because if the matter is mishandled the effects of any party schism could last for far longer than the outcome of the referendum itself. The media has cottoned onto this and the papers are now full of speculation about where individual ministers sit on the matter. I won’t add to the speculation about this other than to say that I am told that several ministers and a large number of Tory MPs are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before stating their position. Thus, being on the winning side is the most important factor in the decision rather than an individual’s views on the EU. Such high principles, eh?

The first question to ask is whether any of this matters, and to my mind it does but only for a short time. The euro-sceptic views of many MPs are well known so when someone comes out onto one side or the other it shouldn’t really be a surprise to anyone unless there is a major volte-face. The importance to the 2 camps is the way it is reported by the media and in particular the timing of any resignation announcements in relation to other campaign issues. If a minister decides to resign today and join the leave campaign then it will be big news….for a couple of days. If it occurred on the same day that Cameron announced that his renegotiation had been successfully completed, then the political effect could be considerable. Ministers going early will soon be yesterday’s news. By the time the phoney war ends and campaigning starts in earnest, that individual will be just another former minister like Liam Fox and his views will be lost amongst all the other noise. Now, Cameron must know this and I believe he will want to get all the bad news out of the way before he brings home his piece of EU paper and declares peace in our time. With that in mind, there will be a number of stories planted through friendly media contacts which are designed to infuriate sceptics and flush out wavering ministers early. He will judge that the earlier ministerial resignations occur, then the better for his campaign to Remain. I believe these provocations have already started and one example can be found in the Daily Telegraph today which informs us that:

“David Cameron is already preparing a pro-European Union dossier that will be sent out to British families ahead of the in-out referendum.”

“It will lead to accusations that the Prime Minister is pre-judging the result of his ongoing renegotiation with Brussels and comes amid speculation that at least one Cabinet minister will resign in the New Year in order to campaign for Britain to leave the EU. The dossier is being likened by sources to a pamphlet issued to every British household by Harold Wilson ahead of the 1975 referendum setting out an “independent” government analysis of his renegotiation, alongside the pro- and anti- campaign literature.”

Then we get the source:

“The plans were disclosed by Mats Persson, a No 10 adviser and former boss of Open Europe, in a briefing to senior Conservatives last month.”

Then the real issue:

“Conservative eurosceptics are increasingly angry at what they see as a “sham renegotiation” by Downing Street.
At least one Cabinet minister is known to be considering whether to in the coming weeks resign and join the “Leave” campaign.
Chris Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers are all committed eurosceptics and there has been speculation about them quitting if Mr Cameron does not guarantee that he will allow members of his Cabinet to campaign for Britain to quit the EU.”

So the story originated in No 10. You would expect them to be keen on suppressing speculation about ministerial resignations unless Cameron has already decided that they are going to occur anyway and that it is best to get them out of the way before they can cause any real damage to the Remain campaign.

What a joke this game is.