Before the last election Mr Cameron was attentive and available to MPs who wanted a change of course. He was persuaded by some of us to veto the Fiscal treaty, to offer a referendum and to seek to cut the EU budget, for example. Although he did not have a fully representative number of Eurosceptic Ministers in the government, he did make up for that to some extent by meeting with us and seeking to understand our concerns. We were delighted with the offer of a referendum, and redoubled our efforts to achieve a Conservative government on the strength of it.
Since the election Mr Cameron has been spending much more time with other EU leaders than with Eurosceptic backbenchers. Maybe that goes with the job. Maybe it was necessary to undertake a renegotiation. In part it is because the EU has entered another one of its phases of permanent crisis, with the great migration testing the borderless empire to destruction of the policy whilst the financial tensions of the Euro continue to play in many parts of the currency zone. He was of course abroad when the IDS problem blew up, showing again the difficulty of EU entanglements to domestic politics, taking a PM away from crucial domestic matters when it is important to be available in person.
Whilst this may all be an understandable use of Prime Ministerial time, the danger is he loses sufficient contact and understanding with his own party, the very force that keeps him in office. Ending up on the opposite side to a majority of his party members and to around half his Parliamentary party on the EU issue despite indicating clearly he would like them to side with him creates new issues in party management that need careful and urgent attention. If he retains his understanding of the merits of the Eurosceptic case and can sympathise with what we are doing it can be handled. If he gets to the point where he has forgotten all the reservations he has expressed in the past about the EU, and the apparent narrow call he made to recommend staying in, then he will find it more difficult to put the party back as one after the result of the vote. Some of us were proud to help with the Bloomberg speech, and many were pleased with its clear message that democratic accountability had to rest in the UK from the people to their Parliament. That is what we are trying to restore by proposing we leave the EU.
So what needs the Prime Minister to do to unite his party? He needs first of all to demonstrate that Ministerial jobs are as open to pro Leave people as to Remain people – I speak for many talented colleagues who wish us to leave, not for myself. The replacement of Iain Duncan Smith with a Remain person is not a good first step. If Leave wins then of course all the crucial roles that are EU facing and are part of the negotiation for exit need to be taken by people who believe in exit. That modest minority who wished to remain and have been long term believers in the project also deserve their share of positions, but those who have voted Remain with little conviction do not need a representative quota given the views of the party but should be judged solely on their Ministerial merits. Were Remain to win the half of the Parliamentary party that wants out will be bitterly disappointed as they are believers and representatives of much of the party membership , so will need to be involved in the government that follows. Again some of them could be useful in EU facing roles to try to prevent the EU using their win in our vote to brush the UK’s continuing legitimate concerns aside.
He also needs to nuance his comments in the referendum campaign. He speaks as if the only thing that matters to him is winning, turning a deaf ear to the legitimate views of the other side. That is fine for a partisan fighting a normal election, as such partisans don’t win the right to stay in office if they lose. As he wishes to remain Prime Minister, he has to remember that the Prime Minister has to speak as best he can for the whole nation. As party leader he has to speak for the majority of his party. If he spends the next few weeks denying, criticising and brushing aside everything we believe in about the fundamentals of our democracy and our nation, it will be that much more difficult for him to put it all together again afterwards.
I respect those on the other side of the EU debate who genuinely want a United Europe, with full banking, monetary, economic and political union as the leaders of the EU want. I disagree with them, but understand their vision. I find it very difficult to understand people who argue with us about how imperfect the EU is, and then insist we stay in it for fear of them trying to be nasty to us if we leave. The UK has no tradition of giving in to bullies. It is bizarre that the main view that many pro EU people have in the UK is that our partners are nasty. Fortunately they would not be powerful enough to hurt us.