Naked Politics Blogger
As the EU referendum debate blunders on like a bull with Vaseline in its eyes in a china shop, it’s claimed another sacrifice as Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC), John Longworth resigned over his comments about the union. Though the BCC is officially neutral in the debate, John came out for Brexit. He acknowledged that as his stance (shared with everyone at the BCC annual conference) differed from the BCC’s, it was right that he resign as staying would ‘likely create confusion’. I propose some of the frontbenches should be following suit, as the Conservatives are now doing a political Hokey Cokey whilst battling each other in a misguided ‘blue team vs blue team’ event.
This would not normally be allowed to occur as the Ministerial Code states Ministers should be able to barney freely in private but maintain a united front when decisions are reached. When unable to accept collective responsibility they are expected to resign. These are the quitters of conscience such as we saw over the Iraq war.
Collective responsibility has been suspended by the PM for the referendum (indeed it was also adjourned during the referendum on the now retro sounding EEC back in 1975.) However, it seems the PM may have had his hand forced by some who threatened to resign if he didn’t. I assume he conceded to try and avoid the party going in to civil war mode. That worked well then!
The divide between Ministers is looking rather farcical, with just one illustration being the two top dogs at Defra split on the issue and both giving their sides, to a bemused audience, at the National Farmers Union conference.
A recent ruckus has surrounded whether Brexit Ministers will have full access to civil service documents during the campaign period, with some accusing Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood of acting unconstitutionally exclaiming the guidance he has issued disadvantages them. However civil servants can only be expected to carry out work that supports the government.
Sir Jeremy has now been dragged in front of the Public Administration Committee to placate and pacify those with steam coming out of their ears, revealing there is no agenda to deny ministers factual briefing papers but only “briefing and speech material” supporting the leave campaign.
Pro EU Minister Matthew Hancock was also left to defend the guidance in the House articulating that the whole situation has only come about because the PM has allowed Ministers to stay in government while disagreeing with a policy.
No good deed goes unpunished hey Dave! After, rather graciously, allowing his inner circle to publicly dissent, they show their gratitude with bitching and infighting. No wonder people think the EU will tear the Conservatives apart…again. Maybe we’ll even see a spoof Joy Division cover to this effect if we’re lucky!
Others are now starting to accede that by letting those who oppose him stay on the front benches, Cameron may have made a bit of a boo boo. Of course, had he dictated “It’s my way or the highway” to his cabinet he would have been accused of being a tyrant and ‘rigging’ the debate.
John Major speculated on these issues at the end of last year, pronouncing that it would be extraordinary if Ministers campaigned against cabinet policy (especially before the renegotiations were finished, which at least they didn’t) and that hopefully after the deal they wouldn’t want to. A bit pie in the sky there.
The public want to see the smurfs battling Gargamel and not each other, but the claws are out and I don’t see them being retracted. Cameron is now in the unenviable position of trying to persuade the country when it appears he cannot even convince his cabinet of the merits of the EU.
The Conservative Vice Chairman Mark Field agrees with me, deeming that those unable to support the Prime Minster should take their bottoms off to the back benches and stop undermining his leadership. On the Left, the Dark Lord himself (Mandelson not Voldemort) has come out, a bit like a terrifying old schoolmaster, to declare that cabinet members whinging about access to papers have got off rather lightly considering their behaviour and are lucky not to have been sacked.
Though Minister’s have been given the free pass of collective responsibility being suspended, I had hoped they would retain some decorum rather than starting slanging matches (I’m looking at EU Iain Duncan Smith). So if they don’t have to support the PM on this, my question is why you would want to be part of a government you so fervently opposed on this most fundamental of issues?