David Cameron’s decision to allow members of the government to campaign on either side of the referendum on European Union membership was presented as a magnanimous gesture. He would graciously offer a free vote to the members of his cabinet who back an exit, following the historical precedent set by Harold Wilson in 1975. But in reality, he had no other option.
Well, that’s not strictly true. He had the option of ignoring the demands of the backbenchers and cabinet ministers clamouring to be able to speak their minds on this most pressing issue. He could have insisted on collective responsibility. But this course of action would have risked the implosion of the Conservative government. As several media accounts showed, the Leader of the House of Commons Chris Grayling had threatened to resign if ministers were not allowed a free vote, and other members of the cabinet could have followed him.
So what did David Cameron achieve with this move, apart from avoiding the humiliating erosion of his authority?
The timing was beneficial, but not quite as beneficial as Cameron hoped. He made his announcement right in the middle of a shambolic opposition reshuffle, hoping that the media would be far too busy scrutinising Jeremy Corbyn to expose his own weakness as party leader. Unfortunately, he was only moderately successful in that goal. Labour did dominate the news agenda but the Prime Minister’s poor hand was all too apparent.
As a general rule of thumb, a free vote is the last resort of a leader unable to command the loyalty of their cabinet colleagues. And Europe in particular has been Cameron’s Achilles heel throughout his tenure.
Since his election as Conservative leader in 2005 he has been held hostage by the eurosceptic wing of his party. He has conceded to most of their demands and gained very little in return. In truth, every concession made to Tory eurosceptics has implied a loss of influence in the EU. At times it has even resulted in frosty relations with the very European partners Cameron needs to help him implement his European strategy.
The home front
Back home, Cameron has bought a few weeks (if not a couple of months) of peace and quiet on the European front. Ministers will not be allowed to campaign for a Brexit just yet. They will have to wait until the government has finished negotiating with the rest of the EU on the UK’s various proposals for changing the terms of its membership. In the meantime, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will be able to pontificate about the government’s successes on Europe.
The Prime Minister mentioned the forthcoming European Council of February 18 as a potential date for a deal but this deadline is quite ambitious. The demands of the British government, which were only presented to European partners in December, are fairly technical and will take some time to be met, even if most of them are achievable.
Moreover, the “British question” can only dominate so much of the European council agenda so Cameron has hinted that the negotiation “could take considerably longer” than expected (though he may be exaggerating the difficulties so that any deal can be presented as a massive victory).
The likelihood of Cameron obtaining most of what he has asked for in the negotiation might be sufficient to win the support of eurosceptic cabinet ministers such as Michael Gove, Sajid Javid and Oliver Letwin. These ministers may feel tempted to join the Leave campaign but they may also want to remain loyal to Cameron (or to his chancellor, George Osborne, who is being lined up to succeed him).
In addition, if the Prime Minister can obtain concessions on constitutional issues such as more powers for national parliaments, the removal of the much hated reference to “ever closer union” in the EU treaties or even the promise to renegotiate a new EU treaty at a later stage, he can perhaps persuade another handful of Tory eurosceptics to campaign to remain in the EU. That includes other leadership contenders Theresa May and Boris Johnson who, so far, are keeping their cards very close to their chests. And after all, and as Kenneth Clarke said during Tuesday’s Commons debate, these (and not EU immigration) have been the leading issues of the eurosceptic cause.
Considering what is at stake, these will not be great achievements but the tactical buying of peace is very much in keeping with Cameron’s modus operandi, particularly in European matters. Ultimately, it may just help him to close the book on the European question without a major humiliation.