5 January 2016

Why have Cabinet Ministers been given free rein?

The long standing fear within the Conservative Party has been that the EU referendum will pit MPs, members and supporters against each other in a poisonous battle and may result in the party tearing itself apart. The logic runs that if senior members were unable to speak out in favour of Brexit but were instead bound by collective responsibility (backing the presumed Cabinet line of Remain) then there would be mass resignations and it would be near impossible to piece the party back together again afterwards. As such, the logic here is presumably that it will be easier to bring the party back together if everyone is able to speak their mind in an open and amicable way – though whether this will be the reality remains to be seen. Cynics might argue that, faced with the prospect of more high-profile resignations than he had bargained for, the Prime Minister had little alternative.

I expect the decision has also been taken to remove one stick with which those backing Brexit can beat the Prime Minister with. Previous errors, such as over the purdah, which provoked a backlash are also still fresh in the mind.

Is this a change of tack?

Not entirely given that there were a number of reports and leaks before Christmas that Cameron had decided to allow ministers to campaign freely. That said, it was far from confirmed and there is a lingering question of whether there has been a hardening of positions within the cabinet and potential threats of resignations which encouraged Cameron to publicly take this position. Until very recently there had been numerous stories of cabinet reshuffles and job offers to maintain loyalty and reduce the risk of mass resignations, which seems to clash somewhat with this announcement.

What are the potential implications of the decision?

It could prove to have a few important implications:

  • Obviously, the hope is that this will make it easier to bring the party together again. It is clearly going to be split but a less acrimonious and more amicable split may be more manageable.
  • That said, there are no guarantees. While ministers were given free rein in the 1975 EU referendum, there is little precedent for binning cabinet collective responsibility in recent times. It could also make the government look confused and divided, undermining it’s standing in the eyes of the public.
  • From the perspective of the campaigns, this is likely to be seen as a win for the Leave side. A big question has always been whether it would be able to attract the big political personalities which can sway public opinion – as the polling from ComRes below shows, some politicians can sway votes. This move will likely make it easier for them to attract high profile politicians as they no longer have to risk throwing their careers away.
  • There is a small chance it could prove a boost the Remain side. This could be a scenario where a very large majority of cabinet ministers, even some sceptical ones, back Remain clearly of their own volition rather than perceived pressure or out of career progression.
  • While some have suggested that there could be a positive career progression case to be made for backing Leave, since any post referendum cabinet will need to bring together people from both sides, there seems little doubt that behind the scenes there will be plenty of lobbying and offers made to convince people to back Cameron’s position.
  • Finally, it seems sensible that this should only happen after the renegotiation is complete as a divided government ahead of this point would create huge uncertainty and confuse negotiations. This should give at least four months for those that wish to, to campaign for either side, more than enough time for them to make their cases one would think. The question is whether those Ministers inclined to Leave will start manoeuvring before the negotiations are concluded – which could potentially prove unhelpful.