By any standard political calculation, the looming EU referendum should be the End of Days for the Conservative Party. It is a collective leap from a high cliff onto jagged rocks, where unspeakable monsters wait to gobble up any unlucky survivors. It is the moment in the Bond movie when the villain’s plot is finally foiled and his hollowed-out volcano collapses with all the evil henchmen still inside. It is the 19th-century missionary liberally seasoning himself before voluntarily climbing into the cannibal’s bubbling pot.
In Tory HQ right now, every red light should be flashing, every siren sounding, a recorded voice repeating ‘please leave the building immediately’ (or perhaps just ‘RUUUUUNNNNNN’) on a loop. The police, the ambulance service, the fire brigade, the Army, the IMF, the UN and Medecins Sans Frontieres should be racing towards Central Office, accompanied by a pack of St Bernards.
Here’s why: the Tories are a party overwhelmingly for Out, led by a small elite who are for In. According to one report yesterday, nearly two-thirds of their 330 MPs now support Britain’s exit, an estimate which seems, if anything, a little low. Their leader, the Prime Minister, wants the opposite. David Cameron has reluctantly announced that his Cabinet ministers can back either side, but is putting the squeeze on the most credible and influential of them to support his position. We may end up in a situation where noted sceptics such as Michael Gove, Theresa May and Boris Johnson are forced into a brutal public war with the Out campaign, despite privately sharing its ambitions. On a matter of personal principle and reputation, that is not a recipe for a happy conscience, good relations, or longer-term stability.
It has become increasingly difficult to find even a moderate minister or backbench Conservative MP who supports membership. I always like to make a point of asking, and in recent years had grown used to a wrinkling of the nose, followed by a slightly embarrassed smile and a softly-spoken confession that they want to leave. Now, it’s the few remaining Inners who speak in hushed tones. The momentum is for Out: the parliamentarians are for Out; the membership is for Out; the columnists are for Out; the bloggers are for Out.
A groupthink is descending on the Conservative movement, and it is one I recognise from last year’s Scottish referendum. Those who were for Yes were very, very, very for Yes. Their fervency debrained them and left them willing to believe in the absurd land of post-UK milk and honey projected by the SNP’s oracles. There was no reasoning with them — they weren’t interested in inconvenient facts or nuance and would merely repeat back to you the central mantras. If you hadn’t drunk the Kool Aid, you were a non-person.
As with Yes, so with Out. Out is cool — or what passes for cool in Toryland. Inevitably, there is a desire to be seen to be on the ‘right’ side of the argument, a concern about isolating yourself from your friends, a heady attraction to being on the radical, more energised wing of the debate. Few in the salons of the Right willingly make the case for staying in the EU. After all, it’s a brave young comer with political ambitions who dares stand up in a hostile room to say, ‘Now, hang on a minute…’
The Conservatives should be wobbling on the precipice. The EU is one of their very few catnip issues: it drives them but almost no one else batty. It leads this usually most rational and power-hungry of institutions to chase its tail. Many of Brexit’s advocates bring an unnervingly religious posture to their cause, an off-putting certainty that could never be matched by those thoughtfully supporting a reformed version of the status quo. And Brexit aligns most of our governing party with the extremists of Ukip and the hard Left, and alienates the decisive moderate voters of the centre-ground.
Further, few have yet picked up on the risks the referendum poses to the economy. As the vote draws closer, and if the result is too close to call — which seems a likely scenario — companies at home and abroad will begin to cancel or delay investment; uncertainty will play havoc with the markets; the housing market, especially at the top end, may well freeze. This will have consequences for growth, jobs and tax revenues in an already fragile climate.
While he might currently argue otherwise, if Cameron loses the referendum he will almost certainly have to resign. Those who dispute this fail to appreciate just how bitter things are about to get. As the campaign hots up the argument will become ever more polarised and emotional, leading to bad feeling, harsh words and broken relationships — remember, this is not the 1970s, but the perma-angry social media age.
Next, as William Hague has pointed out, Scotland, which will have voted to stay in the EU, will hold another independence referendum and in those circumstances is much more likely to choose to leave the UK. Outers clearly view this as a price worth paying.
The public will be well aware that all this chaos is the result of the Tories indulging their EU mania. So it stands to reason that the Conservatives should pay the price. For any half-decent opposition the referendum would offer a potential free-pass back to government. And yet, for as long as Jeremy Corbyn remains Labour leader, the Right are safe to do whatever they want — there is nothing they could devise that would frighten the electorate more than Corbyn and his hard-Left crew already do. Even yesterday, as Cameron faced questions about his future on the Andrew Marr show, an interview was published with the ludicrous shadow chancellor John McDonnell — his constituency office ‘plastered with murals of a united Ireland and cards declaring “Behind every fortune lies a crime”’ — in which he called for talks with Argentina over the Falklands and refused to dismiss calls for Tony Blair to be tried for war crimes. Corbyn has anyway made it clear he is ambiguous about whether we retain EU membership.
The failure of Labour MPs to abort the appalling Corbyn experiment is bad enough for their own party’s future prospects. But at a time when Britain faces a huge existential choice and desperately needs a vibrant, robust opposition to head off the danger of Brexit and the subsequent break up of the UK, their inaction is verging on treasonous.
This article appeared in the Scottish Daily Mail on January 11, 2016