Will Cameron suspend collective responsibility over the EU?

If Ken Clarke is free to put the europhile case, eurosceptics will want to be able to argue for withdrawal.

After Michael Heseltine's intervention at the weekend, today it's the turn of the europhiles' other big beast, Ken Clarke, to offer his two penn'orth on the Europe debate. In an interview with the FT, the former Justice Secretary, who now attends cabinet as a minister without portfolio, warns that David Cameron's plan to hold a referendum on a "new EU settlement" for Britain could unintentionally lead to withdrawal. He notes:

All referenda are a bit of a gamble. I don’t think we can take a Yes vote for granted.

I think one of the problems is, because so much of the media is overwhelmingly eurosceptic, no one has really campaigned very vigorously for the case for British leadership in the European Union for probably a decade or more.

The problem for Cameron is that the gap between what Tory MPs want from a renegotiation (see the list of demands issued by the Fresh Start group today) and what he can deliver is so great that he has set himself up for failure. As a result, he will find it harder to persuade his party and the public that Britain should remain in the EU when a referendum is held.

Elsewhere in the interview, Clarke, who has warned Cameron against seeking to use the eurozone crisis to repatriate powers from Brussels, bluntly compares those who support withdrawal to the "hangers and floggers" who demanded a referendum on capital punishment in the 1970s. "If you realise you’re doomed in parliament you demand a referendum – that’s what the hangers and floggers used to do," he says.

One issue that Clarke's fusillades against euroscepticism raise is whether collective ministerial responsibility applies to him. His plan to share a platform with Peter Mandelson to argue for full British engagement with the EU suggests not. In response, we can expect eurosceptics to ask whether those ministers who privately favour withdrawal should also be free to put their case.

As I noted earlier this week, the last time Britain held a referendum on the EU in 1975, Harold Wilson took the unusual step of suspending collective cabinet responsibility (as Cameron has over the boundary changes bill) in order to allow his ministers to support either side in the campaign. Seven Labour cabinet ministers - Benn, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot, William Ross, Peter Shore John Silkin, Eric Varley - went on to unsuccessfully argue for withdrawal from the EEC (the vote was 67-33 in favour of membership). In this week's Spectator, James Forsyth reported that there are "at least nine Cabinet members" who would be inclined to vote "out" in a referendum if Cameron only proves able to secure minor concessions such as the exemption of the NHS from the Working Time Directive

We're a long way off from a referendum but expect Cameron to be asked as early as Friday whether he would allow Conservative cabinet ministers to campaign for exit.

Ken Clarke, who attends cabinet as a minister without portfolio, has argued that Britain should not seek to repatriate powers from the EU. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.