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The way in which the Tory high command continually confuses its own interests and the progress of the UK’s EU referendum campaign is becoming steadily more annoying. Immersed in governing, pleased as punch with their election win (delivered by Lynton Crosby) and beyond delighted that Labour has chosen suicide over recovery, the EU vote is talked of by leadership loyalists as though it is about the future of Cameron and Osborne rather than the future of the country.
But Britain’s looming vote on the EU is not – or should not be – politics as normal. It is a historic moment, in which the UK will decide to take one of two quite different paths. Party management and careers matter, of course, but sometimes there are choices that should be about something more than the mere game of politics. The EU referendum is one such event.
In that light, the timidity to date of Eurosceptics (and former Eurosceptics) within the Cabinet is quite astonishing. Chris Grayling, Leader of the House, is the only member of the cabinet to indicate so far that he will vote to leave the EU, and Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has been pushing Cameron behind the scenes, convincing him that he had to allow ministers the right to campaign for either side when the formal campaign starts. But that’s about it. Others are said to be considering their options, although it is quite possible that Leave will end up with only Grayling, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers, when there are plenty more Eurosceptic ministers in the government. What will the scaredy cats do during the campaign? Do they propose to go into hiding or will they parrot lines prepared for them by the Tory leadership? How will this look on television? How will the Outers for In look at themselves in the mirror afterwards?
Two leading Tories – big beast Michael Gove and trainee big beast Sajid Javid – are said to be weighing up their options, although neither at this stage looks likely to break for Out, which leads me to wonder what they are so scared of. Gove is close friends with Cameron and Osborne, of course, and one can understand the difficulty he finds himself in. Javid has the possibility of being Osborne’s Chancellor when the great takeover eventually happens…
It is all such short-term nonsense, which reminds me of the hilarious way Gordon Brown’s allies used to say in 2006-2007 that you had better get on side because Gordon was going to own the future. Where is Gordon now?
Ministers, it is make your mind up time. Although David Cameron’s renegotiation with the EU for new membership terms could have been the real deal, it is clear that it will deliver very little. It is In or Out, probably as soon as this summer. For that reason, ministers need to do something that is highly unfashionable and considered downright deranged in the British Establishment: decide what you believe – enthusiastically for In, reluctantly for In, or Out because you think it is best for your country – and get ready to fight for it at public meetings across the land. Don’t be scared. You are grown men and women. You might even be surprised how much voters like politicians saying what they believe rather than what is convenient for their careers.
This argument is – I know – a stretch, considering how careerist politics has become. But for anyone playing a leading role in the affairs of a nation to base such a vital decision purely on career progression or fear of friends is not only wrong, it’s pathetic. And in ten years time, none of it, all the hedging and game-playing, will matter a jot. By then David Cameron will be having a snooze after lunch in rural Oxfordshire. Osborne will be running the World Bank or a hedge fund. The decision on the EU, on the other hand, now that will have mattered a lot.