David Cameron has described Harold Macmillan as his political hero. But, as the Prime Minister contemplates a new year set to be dominated by the explosive matter of Europe, he would be better advised to study the career of another Harold, one Mr Wilson, who skilfully piloted his way through the reefs of Brussels in the 1975 referendum.
Like Cameron today, Wilson had conceived the idea of renegotiating Britain’s terms of membership of the then European Economic Community as a tool of party management since his Labour government was badly split on the issue. In the key vote on a pro-EEC White Paper, 148 Labour MPs opposed their government, with 138 in favour and 32 abstentions.
Wilson’s Cabinet was also divided with seven members, including Michael Foot, Tony Benn and Barbara Castle, opposed to the modest package of reforms secured by the Prime Minister. The Labour Party in general voted 2:1 against Britain’s continued membership.
Wilson’s response was to suspend collective Cabinet responsibility and let his ministers campaign on either side of the European fence. Cameron would be well advised to follow his example.
As things stand, the Prime Minister appears intent on playing it tough. A raft of Cabinet ministers, including Iain Duncan Smith, Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Sajid Javid and John Whittingdale, harbour Eurosceptic sympathies to a greater or lesser extent. Then there is Theresa May, whose party conference speech warning of the dangers of mass immigration has been widely interpreted as signalling a shift in that direction.
Theoretically, at least, Cameron could be hit by a destabilising wave of Cabinet resignations if he pursues his chosen course and insists on collective responsibility once he has completed his renegotiation (probably by late February) and presented his package of “reforms” to his colleagues. Set aside for a moment the fact that the Prime Minister’s new settlement will be of little more than cosmetic value and will make no fundamental difference to Britain’s relationship with the EU. The more immediate question is will he allow his ministers to act on their consciences and beliefs and campaign for their chosen side while remaining members of his Government?
Cameron will be taking a huge risk if he does insist on support for his EU policy as the price for ministers retaining their Cabinet posts. According to yesterday’s Sunday Times, three ministers (Duncan Smith, Grayling and Villiers) will quit if they are compelled to toe the Government line.
But there is far more to such calculations than the European issue alone. The Prime Minister has pre-announced his departure before the next election and so the battle over Europe is also entangled in calculations about a fast-approaching leadership contest. Friends of the front-running contender, Chancellor George Osborne, are making no secret of the fact that advancement under an Osborne administration will depend on loyalty to the current leadership’s European policy.
Javid and Gove are firmly in the Chancellor’s camp and can be expected to back the Cameron-Osborne package. But May and Johnson, who both harbour leadership ambitions, are rival contenders for the crown. They are unlikely to flourish under Osborne and may calculate that their ambitions are better served by throwing in their lot with the Vote Leave campaign, which already has the backing of former Cabinet ministers Owen Paterson and Liam Fox, both of whom are arguing strongly for ministers to be released from their obligation to support Government policy on Europe.
The likely outcome of the referendum is another complicating factor. Under the impact of the migration crisis, public opinion has moved towards Brexit, though not overwhelmingly so. The press may report that Cameron is getting nowhere with his EU negotiations. But that does not stop him blithely insisting that “We have taken a big step forward for a better deal for Britain.” Maybe Cameron knows something we don’t. Maybe he will cook up a migrant benefits deal with Merkel and Hollande and, with a little bit of help from the BBC, succeed in presenting his final package as an improvement on our current arrangements. Cameron and Osborne have spun their way out of trouble before – perhaps they can do it again.
And where would that leave principled (or not so principled) Cabinet ministers who decide to walk the plank and campaign for Out?
Referendums are never just about the question on the ballot paper. In this case they are as much about leadership ambitions and career prospects. But there is one respect in which Cameron is decidedly lucky: the implosion of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn means that the vote pencilled in for next year is unlikely to become a verdict on the Government passed by a jaundiced electorate.
The stakes are high for everyone concerned. If Cameron loses the referendum, he is finished and so, almost certainly, is Osborne. If he wins, he can consolidate his grip on the Conservative Party and prepare to hand the baton on to his chum Osborne. Ministers – and MPs – who back the losing side can look forward to years in the doldrums or worse.
Macmillan’s career never recovered from his “Night of the Long Knives” in 1962, when he sacked one third of his Cabinet. He, too, was gone within a year. Cameron should think twice about repeating this panicky blunder. Headlines proclaiming mass resignations from his Cabinet are hardly the most auspicious opening to a referendum campaign that will further divide the Tories and present a formidable challenge to restoring party unity once the votes are counted.
The smart answer is for Cameron to let his ministers campaign and vote according to their conscience and beliefs.