For many in Westminster, the European referendum is less a question of sovereignty and more an opportunity to settle old scores: the vote is an afterthought. As one Remain minister put it, “For my generation, it isn’t what we came into politics to do. We’re not like Bernard Jenkin or Bill Cash, who are gearing up for one last great battle.”
The temptation is, therefore, to see the referendum as a proxy for something more compelling – the contest to replace David Cameron as Prime Minister, for example, or the question of whether Scotland should remain a part of the UK. Most people assume that the row surrounding Jeremy Heywood, the Cabinet Secretary, who has advised civil servants to withhold documents related to the EU referendum from ministers who have signed up to the Leave campaign, is no more than a storm in a teacup – and not a particularly diverting storm at that.
Bernard Jenkin, chair of the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee and a committed Outer, told the Guardian that Heywood’s actions were “unorthodox” and “unconstitutional”. Is he right?
They are certainly unorthodox. In 1975, when the Labour government split over its referendum on whether to remain in what was then called the Common Market, civil servants prepared pro-Brexit briefs for Peter Shore, who was then the secretary of state for trade.
The constitutional question, however, is far murkier. As one retired civil servant said, “I wouldn’t take lessons on constitutional propriety from Harold Wilson.” Back then, Wilson had a Commons majority of just three. The next election was considered up for grabs. Cameron’s majority of 12 is comfier than it looks, particularly once the Northern Irish Unionists are taken into account. Wilson’s stance was less about the civil-service code than keeping his embattled government in office.
The civil service is supposed to be impartial in carrying out government business – but not apolitical. The government’s position, at least until the referendum enters its “purdah” period 28 days before the vote, is perfectly clear. As a senior source noted angrily, “These are people who fulminate over whether special advisers are acting in a political way and now they want their civil servants to take time out to assist them in campaigning against the government.”
The rights and wrongs are almost secondary. As far as the politics goes, this puts Cameron in a difficult position. On the very day the Prime Minister derided claims that the campaign to keep Britain in the EU was based on “Project Fear”, and described his own efforts as “Project Fact”, his government moved to screen those facts at the convenience of Team Remain.
More troubling than that is the collapse of what a former Downing Street staffer called “the old code”. “People don’t like to believe that Cameron might be the problem. They say, ‘Oh, it’s the fault of Ed Llewellyn [Cameron’s chief of staff]. It’s Jeremy Heywood’s fault. It’s the Liberal Democrats’ fault.’ In fact, the problem is that David Cameron is a centrist Conservative who doesn’t want the type of politics that they want.”
This time, it isn’t Heywood or pro-Europeans in Downing Street who are being blamed. Cameron is the object of anger and frustration among Tory MPs and even if Britain stays in the EU, the convenient myth that the disappointments of the Cameron era were the product of anyone but the Prime Minister has been torn up.
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Germany's migrant crisis