Should they stay or should they go?

Ministers are making a number of calculations in deciding what side to back in the up-coming referendum.

Image: Prime Minister David Cameron leaves 10 Downing Street, to travel to the House of Commons to set out details of the EU reform deal yesterday. Picture by: Yui Mok / PA Wire/Press Association Images

The Prime Minister is embarking on a whirlwind charm offensive to persuade other EU states to agree to finalise the details of the deal that emerged out of negotiations with the President of the European Council on Monday. The chances that a deal might be agreed soon means that Conservative Ministers are now facing the decision about if they back the Prime Minister in recommending that the UK votes to remain in the EU or throw their support behind the leave campaign.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that Ministers will be able to support either side of the campaign once that collective responsibility is lifted. If the Prime Minister can persuade the other 27 member states to back a deal, the agreement will be struck at the European Council meeting on the 18th February in Brussels with a Cabinet meeting held soon afterwards, at which point Ministers will be free to decide which side to back

This suspension of collective responsibility should give Ministers the freedom to assess what they think of the detail of the negotiation and make up their own mind, but the reality is that the final decision of which side to back will be the result of complex political calculations.

The Prime Minister’s letter to his Ministers setting out the terms of engagement during the campaign makes it clear that Ministers who disagree with the Government “because of long-standing and sincerely held beliefs” would be free to support Brexit. Despite the agreed suspension of collective responsibility, the question is how long standing and sincere do these beliefs have to be?

Ministers such as Chris Grayling, Theresa Villiers and Iain Duncan-Smith have already made their positions clear. They have always been expected to support an exit vote and won’t be expected to back the Prime Minister’s deal.

The Prime Minister is known to be anxious about how many undecided cabinet members will decide to back him and if any senior members of his cabinet will choose to lead the ‘leave’ campaign. and the Chancellor have been talking to colleagues individually to try and gauge the position that they are likely to take. They will have been reassured by the signals from Theresa May that she is likely to back a deal, and also the recent decision by Stephen Crabb, the Welsh Secretary, to highlight his support for the Prime Minister’s approach, as Crabb is seen as reflecting  the views of a number of younger moderate Eurosceptic MPs.

If the Prime Minister does manage to bring the country with him and the UK votes to remain in EU, both he and the Chancellor are likely to be around for some time to come. Cameron has announced his intention to step down before the next General Election, but if he wins the referendum he is likely to stay in office until 2019. A successful referendum will also boost George Osborne as a favourite to inherit the leadership. Ministers don’t want to take the risk of being left out in the cold for a very long time by backing the wrong side.

As well as fears of the consequences of testing the Prime Minister’s loyalty, many MPs feel that whilst they might not be happy with the results of the negotiation, they owe a personal debt to the Prime Minister for winning the General Election and delivering what he promised in the manifesto that they stood on. Many MPs and Ministers might therefore decide that, as their support won’t really shift the result one way or the other, they will vote with their conscience in the ballot box, but not publically defy the Prime Minister and align themselves with the ‘leave’ campaign.

It has been suggested that others who want the UK to leave the EU have decided that the EU’s internal contradictions will lead to its collapse in the near future, so it might be better for the UK to wait for that to happen rather than the UK pulling the plug prematurely. As the Spectator’s James Forsyth has pointed out, this is a convenient bit of geo-political analysis which lets them off the hook from risking their career by defying the Prime Minister.

Conventional wisdom might suggest that as a significant proportion of Conservative activists are Eurosceptic, perhaps even a majority, any future contender for the leadership will have an advantage if they support the ‘leave’ campaign.

The reality is that while the Europe might be an important issue for Conservative members, the most committed Eurosceptics have left to join UKIP, and activists are more likely to be concerned about picking someone who can win an election in 2020 rather than someone who ticks all their ideological boxes. David Davis who lost against David Cameron in 2005 made the mistake of thinking that the route to the support of the leadership was playing into activists’ comfort zone.

Whatever their personal position, surveys have suggested  that the majority of Conservative MPs believe that the UK will vote to stay in the EU, so those backing Brexit know that they are likely to be on the losing side of the argument.

Leadership contenders who come out in support for Brexit at this stage also know that they risk being painted as cynical opportunists, unless they have a clear and unambiguous record of Euroscepticism to support their decision to oppose the Prime Minister. This is likely to have been an issue that weighed on Theresa May’s mind when she made her decision to indicate her support for the Prime Minister’s approach.

As well as the chances that they will be on the losing side, given the crisis that seems to be engulfing the ‘leave’ teams, they risk being tainted by a divided campaign; one with an operation which looks riven by divisions and infighting, and another which is seen as the tool of UKIP and one millionaire backer.

Ministers have roughly a fortnight to decide the position that they will take in the referendum and the competing demands of conscience, loyalty and cold political calculation will be weighing on their minds. Many are disappointed with the deal as it stands. The question is will their disappointment be enough to oppose the Prime Minister.

With Theresa May moving to the ‘remain’ side; the big question is still the position of Boris Johnson. While he has suggested he isn’t a natural believer in the UK leaving the EU, he has in the past suggested that the UK should vote to leave in order to have another go at negotiations to ultimately stay in after striking a better deal. Could Boris defy the Prime Minister and throw his support behind this approach, or are there further changes that could satisfy him, such as his suggestion of an amendment to the European Communities Act 1972 which would allow the UK to unilaterally assert the supremacy of parliament over EU laws.