#Brexit Cameron crosses Rubicon to Tory civil war on Europe

_87208641_8b3a18cf-c670-4910-a3e7-bff6744515f6By Denis MacShane

Forget Labour’s infighting, which has rumbled since the party’s foretold defeat in May 2015.

David Cameron has now crossed a Tory Rubicon to internal party civil war by telling ministers and MPs they do not have to obey government or party discipline on the question of Brexit.

Now all the anti-EU papers owned off-shore can open their columns to Eurosceptic top Tories – not the marginal fringe of Europhobe fanatics and Nigel Farage – but men and women who speak with the authority of cabinet status.

There will be the usual pious appeal for a polite, respectful debate but when the soul of a party and the future of nation is at stake it is impossible to take passion out of play.

In addition, the future leadership of the ruling party and with it the keys to  Downing Street will be at stake.

A cabinet minister who aspires to succeed David Cameron can put him or herself at the head of the Brexit campaign in the knowledge that if Cameron loses and Britain votes to leave Europe against his recommendation to stay in the EU he will, in all honour, have to resign.

The vacancy will be filled whoever had the courage in the eyes of a triumphalist Brexit Tory Party to have come out  and led a national revival campaign against the hated European Union.

Across the Channel, politicians are finally taking the chance of Brexit seriously with Germany’s Manfred Weber, leader of the German MEPs, saying Cameron must be supported.

Meanwhile in England, Sir David Tang, the leading Chinese London-based entrepreneur has a whole page in the Evening Standard extolling the virtues of Brexit.

A key figure is Boris Johnson. An Ipsos MORI poll before Christmas said the London Mayor and Tory MP was worth ten per cent to either a Leave or a Remain campaign such is his popularity with voters, especially the Tory faithful.

Does Boris take a punt for Brexit, hoping to replace Cameron as Prime Minister in the wake of a Brexit outcome? Or does he stay loyal to the Prime Minister in exchange of a hint of a cabinet seat after he stands down as Mayor of London in May?

Many commenatators have reached for comparisons with the 1975 referendum when Harold Wilson allowed Labour ministers to campaign on both sides.

But the Brexit referendum which has been slowly building up ever snce the decision in 1997 of William Hague to make Euroscepticism  the organizing Leitmotif of the Tory Party as Hague struggled to come to terms with Tony Blair’s dominance is in a quite different category to the 1975 affair.

Britain had only just joined the EEC and there was no discernible impact on British law or norms. The European Commission was remote and not seen as the all-powerful secretive executive of Europe undermining British democracy that it is now painted as.

There were no MEPs producing gravy train scandals and no Ukip mobliising and winning millions of anti-European votes. All the press, save the communist Morning Star, was strongly pro-European. 413 out of 416 top business leaders were in favour of staying in and the pro-European IN campaign out-spent the OUT campaign twelve to one.

Wilson had the vast majority of respected Labour ministers – Roy Jenkins, Denis Healey, Shirley Williams and Jim Callaghan – supporting IN. The anti-EEC ministers and politicians were seen as rather outré like Tony Benn, Enoch Powell or Michael Foot – brilliant orators but slightly odd and marginal. Margaret Thatcher and most top Tories were for IN and the result was a foregone conclusion.

Today all is different. The press may change their two decades of hostility to Europe but so far this is not in evidence as papers provide regular platforms for anti-EU appeals to leave, including from influential left-wing journalists such as Owen Jones and Paul Mason.

With Cameron giving the green light to up to half his cabinet including many serious and well-regarded ministers to campaign for Brexit he is making yet more risky the risk he is already taking by holding his Brexit plebiscite.

Politics is personality is an old adage and the idea that half or a third of the cabinet and other ministers will fighting with their colleagues and this can be be corralled into a All Souls after-dinner debate at High Table is fanciful.

It will is about ambition, hate of Brussels, a vision of national destiny, dislike of foreign immigrants – in short all the dividing lines of a civil war without actually using powder and shot.

As the Labour Party indulges its own internal fraternal hate-fest it seems an odd decision of the Prime Minister to open the gates to a Tory ministerial war over Brexit.  Forget the shadow cabinet. What counts now are Brexit cabinet ministers versus the anti-Brexit cabinet ministers.

Denis MacShane is Labour’s former Europe Minister. His book Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe is published by IB Tauris.

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Category: A Frontpage, Brexit, Denis Macshane, EU, Featured Article, Opinion, UK