5 Jan 2016

EU Referendum: free vote for Cabinet

Some Cabinet members have been making it known for a while that they’re worried they might be being strung along on a promise of freedom to campaign against the PM’s line on Europe, concerned that it might be withdrawn at the last minute.

There has even been talk of resignations.

Yesterday, the PM met Chris Grayling the Leader of the House face to face and reassured him that the free vote policy would be made clear in today’s statement to the Commons. Today Chris Grayling sat beside the PM in the chamber listening to the promise made good.

Downing Street clearly hopes this has bought some calm and may even make the referendum campaign a bit more civil when it comes.

But it also knows there’s a risk that the free vote encourages some more big names to make the leap over to the “Leave” side, creates momentum for more Tory MPs to follow suit.

Interestingly, that’s not the perky outlook you hear from some prominent “Leave” campaigners though.

“Theresa/Boris will never do it,” some of them say (delete as applicable). I’ve even heard one of Boris’ close family emphatically saying that the Mayor of London will not join the “Leave” camp.

Many Tory MPs will “try to hide” one senior Tory “Leave” campaigner predicted, but he said the relaxation of discipline would probably increase the numbers who openly declare for “Leave.”

Some Tories may ponder where their best interests lie if the mass of active members want to leave the EU.

There’s a wide expectation that when two names emerge from the ballots of Tory MPs to be chosen as next Tory leader after David Cameron, one of them will be an MP who openly backed the “Leave” campaign.

George Osborne, a senior Tory MP said, will consider it a “significant tactical advantage” if this exercise has smoked out Theresa May and Boris Johnson as “Remain” supporters.

Will the “free vote” make the campaign a little more civil even if it doesn’t change the numbers?

David Cameron will be hoping that pro-Leave ministers with a hope of keeping/getting jobs will not rubbish his renegotiation or his leadership.

Shirley Williams believes the lessons from 1975 when Harold Wilson relaxed the rules are that it is the best way to keep the party together. Her SDP counterpart, Roy Jenkins, used to argue that having cross-party panels on either side actually contributed to the shake up of the party system and the formation of the SDP.

Many Labour voices over the years have said it bought a moment’s peace and little more.

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