As published in The Mail on Sunday:
‘Don’t insult us, Prime Minister. I’m voting “out”… and I refuse to toe the line:’ Former Europe Minister David Davis on the EU referendum
‘This Prime Minister is better at getting out of scrapes than any I’ve ever known,’ boomed Tory grandee Sir Peter Tapsell at PMQs a few years ago. ‘But he’s also better at getting into scrapes than any I’ve ever heard of.’
Sir Peter has known every Prime Minister since Winston Churchill, so he presumably knew what he was talking about. Next year will demonstrate whether both halves of Tapsell’s judgment were right – with the Government facing interlocking problems on Syria, Afghanistan, immigration, terrorism and, of course, the EU referendum which Mr Cameron promised us.
Already the early clashes on the referendum are resonating over the airwaves, with old warhorses like Michael Heseltine being trotted out to issue blood-curdling warnings of imminent civil wars in the Tory Party. Happily, the very fact that we have been there before makes it extremely unlikely there will be any return to the bitter, internecine disputes of the Heseltine Conservative Party of the 1990s.
Of course, there have been some early stumbles on both sides. The ‘In’ campaign got off to a bad start with overblown claims of massive costs and job losses if Britain exits, whilst a staffer at Vote Leave was unnecessarily aggressive about David Cameron’s role if the negotiations founder.
But there is one way to guarantee a Conservative civil war and that’s if the party leadership insists that Cabinet Ministers toe the party line throughout the referendum campaign. For most of them, their views on Europe are neither new nor secret. Throughout the campaign they will be buttonholed by every journalist they meet demanding to know their views. They will be forced either to tell humiliating lies about their own views, or resign as a Minister.
If they resign they will do so to the loud cheers of a sizeable portion of the public. So the choice being forced on them will be to decide between being a public hypocrite, or being a public hero. It is not hard to forecast the decision of the bravest and most honourable among them.
This policy will founder under the weight of its own stupidity. If it does not, and Ministers start to resign, this will provide the greatest possible accelerant to the ‘Out’ campaign that it could ever wish for. So expect a quiet climbdown from that particular policy. In truth, Ministers should be free to speak now in what is the greatest decision of our generation; anything else is an insult to democracy.
But that will not be the most difficult of the issues facing the Government. The Prime Minister plainly wants the British people to decide to stay in the EU.
His problem is that the decision is about to be taken at a time when many of the EU’s chickens are coming home to roost. Even William Hague had to recognise this last week when he tried to shore up the pro-EU position. He had to admit that the EU is undemocratic, bureaucratic, and incompetent. He had to admit that the Schengen Treaty has been a disaster, its abandonment of national borders allowing the disastrous migration crisis that destroys the lives of people who flood over our borders in pursuit of misguided hopes.
The truth is we are now being asked to give up control of our own future to exercise an influence we no longer have in the interest of an institution that may be beyond reform. As a former Europe Minister, it pains me to say that I have reached a tipping point and concluded that it is in both our best interests and the EU’s best interests that we seek our future in the wider world.
All of this is going to crystallise next year. This would be difficult enough, but the last year has demonstrated that it is tangled up in issues such as Syria and immigration, issues with an electoral potency not often shown by the dry complexities of Europe.
The case for the EU is weakening by the day, and the case for exit, for freeing our nation to achieve its full potential in the world, is increasing.
For the first time in my political life, the tide of events may be with those who want to leave – in which case next year will be the sternest test yet of Mr Cameron’s tactical brilliance. At least then we will truly discover whether both halves of Sir Peter Tapsell’s description turn out to be right.