Would Cameron allow Tory cabinet ministers to vote for EU withdrawal?

Faced with a split party, Cameron could learn from Harold Wilson and suspend collective cabinet responsibility for the referendum campaign.

Britain would not "collapse" if it left the EU, David Cameron declared in his interview on the Today programme this morning. It was a concession to those in his cabinet who believe that the UK should make it clear that it is prepared to withdraw if it fails to secure significantly changed terms of membership. One of those ministers, Eric Pickles, told Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics last night: "If it's in our firm national interest that we should remain in the EU – and I sincerely hope that is the case – then we should stay. But we shouldn't stay at any price." Michael Gove has similarly argued that Britain must threaten to leave the EU in order to achieve a successful renegotiation.

The danger for Cameron (who remains a genuine supporter of British membership) is that unless he is able to repatriate substantial powers from Brussels, some cabinet ministers will conclude that EU membership is no longer in Britain's interests. 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 and restrictions on immigration from the EU. Confronted by what Forsyth says would be the biggest Conservative split since the repeal of the Corn Laws, how could Cameron respond?

It is worth recalling how the last (and only) government to hold an EU referendum - Harold Wilson's Labour administration in 1975 - dealt with a comparable problem. With europhiles like Roy Jenkins on one side and eurosceptics like Tony Benn on the other, Wilson took the unprecedented step of suspending collective cabinet responsibility 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).

As I wrote earlier, it is wrong to assume that a referendum is inevitable when Cameron's strategy is entirely dependent on a Conservative majority at the next election (an outcome that looks increasingly unlikely). But on the assumption that one does take place, the most elegant way for Cameron to respond to a split party may be to invoke the Wilson precedent.

Iain Duncan Smith, who voted against the Maastricht Treaty that created the EU, is one cabinet minister likely to favour withdrawal. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

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