A Joke or a Masterstroke? Cameron’s referendum concession is a bit of both

While the nation was gripped by the convoluted events coming from the opposition leader’s offices in the Norman Shaw Building, David Cameron gave in to the inevitable and announced that, following his EU renegotiation, he would suspend Cabinet responsibility for the period of the referendum campaign to allow his Eurosceptic ministers to campaign for Brexit. He had a bit of fun at Jeremy Corbyn’s expense, a tad ungraciously considering the poor chap had taken time off from not sacking his closest colleagues to listen to the prime minister. Yet for all the bravura with a Ganex mac, a pipe and the whiff of grubby opportunism could it not have been Harold Wilson rather than David Cameron who stood at the dispatch box?

Both leaders are trying, with varying degrees of success and will, to hold their parliamentary parties together. Despite his oft-mentioned mandate from the membership Corbyn does not command the respect or trust of his parliamentary party. His attempt to dismiss Hilary Benn was politically inept: attacking a popular rival is something no serious political leader would do. That his reshuffle, so decisively briefed to the press, took so long made him look as weak as his party critics. Neither side has won much glory in this battle. But it is not quite a lose/lose situation.

Reunity after allowing ministers to openly attack each other’s positions does not come easily.

Cameron’s concession, on the other hand, was predictable not unforced. It had only become a question of when he made the announcement. Whether it was a tactical masterstroke or a joke only time will tell. That it was thrust upon him and an indication of fragility is undeniable: what leader willingly wants to lead a fractured team? And this is what the prime minister is conceding. From the moment he announces his renegotiation until the votes are counted his party will be split. Whether he has the healing balm to soothe deep wounds we do not know.

History does not look good. In 1975 Harold Wilson, another leader who promised a fundamental renegotiation and plebiscite, suspended collective responsibility to allow errant ministers - Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Barbara Castle - to campaign against remaining in the then Common Market. After the result he swiftly demoted Benn as punishment. The next year he resigned. Within the decade the Labour Party had split, and did not win a general election until 1997. This is the precedent. Reunity after allowing ministers to openly attack each other’s positions does not come easily.

But history does not repeat itself. It sometimes rhymes. More often it is mere blank verse.

For all the similarities and the attempts to play a bad hand well, Cameron is not Harold Wilson. Nor is he John Major, whose tenure saw the Conservatives acrimoniously battle over Europe. His party is in a fundamentally different position. Like his two predecessors, he has just won an unexpected majority. Unlike them however, he faces a lacklustre and distracted opposition. Political parties do not implode by themselves. The Conservatives are confident of winning again in 2020 and have the realistic prospect of two decades in office. Moreover the party is broadly united. The curiosity since the election - demonstrated by Osborne’s ability to backtrack effectively after his tax credits fiasco - is that a Tory cry for greater fiscal restriction is the dog which has not barked in the night. Unlike Labour in the 1970s there is no Tory Benn figure advocating an alternative economic strategy. Dodge and shift though he may, Cameron transcends his party in a manner which later Wilson did not.

By allowing serving ministers to campaign against government policy David Cameron is hamstringing the opposition

Despite the headlines the vast majority of polls predict that Remain will win, and this is supported by the underlying figures which suggest that a majority of the British public see a greater risk in Brexit than in continued EU membership. Fear is such a powerful weapon in politics. Even Tory members, notoriously Eurosceptic, swing towards Remain with Cameron’s endorsement. No wonder the various Leave camps are split and fractious.

Cameron can learn from Wilson, and also from recent history. In 2011 the AV referendum became a poll on Nick Clegg: did voters want to give the promise-breaking Lib Dem leader more power? Personalising the campaign allowed the No side to win a landslide. Reluctance to join a losing side, patronage and personal loyalty will keep most on board if unenthusiastically. But by permitting his Eurosceptics to stay inside his Cabinet tent the prime minister is restricting Leave's ability to urinate. Official videos and posters attacking him will be limited; every time Nigel Farage goes off-message and attacks the prime minister his Cabinet sceptics will be forced to jump to his defence. By allowing serving ministers to campaign against government policy David Cameron is hamstringing the opposition and has created an unlevel playing field in his favour. He is aided by the fact that none of the likely Cabinet Brexitters - IDS, Grayling, Villiers - are heavyweights in the league of Benn, Castle or Foot.

Although he mocked Jeremy Corbyn in the chamber, the Labour leader was in fact helping the prime minister by demonstrating a valuable political lesson: no party leader can tolerate dissent however much he wants a new kind of politics. Corbyn may have failed in his attempt to sack his most prominent critics but he showed Tory Eurosceptics the costs of political freedom.

More about the author

About the author

Educated at Durham University and UCL, Graham is Disclaimer's editor and a regular contributor. He has written for numerous publications including Tribune, Out Magazine and Vice. He has also contributed to two books of political counterfactuals for Biteback Media, Prime Minister Boris (2011) and Prime Minister Corbyn (2016).

A democratic republican lefty, he struggles daily with the conflict between his ingrained senses of idealism and pragmatism.

Follow Graham on Twitter.

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